Providence: A Creative Capital

Once known for its gritty remnants from an industrial past, the city of Providence, Rhode Island has been actively rebranding itself as a creative capital in the last five years through a number of projects and programs.  Creativity though is not a new element of Providence’s economy and cultural landscape, as this relatively small city (of about 177,000 people) is also home to one of the top art schools in the country, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the Ivy League Brown University.  Last week I had the opportunity to explore Providence for a few days and observed a creative city that actively embraced its human capital, from professionals to students, to improve everyday elements of urban life.



As we drove and walked throughout Providence’s neighborhoods a number of murals enlivened spaces, some by internationally know artists and others by local youth. The placement of these works on buildings varied throughout the city, each functioning to improve small and large urban spaces. For example, some murals lined back alleys, brightening traditionally drab spaces, while others occupied large walls facing the highway or downtown roads setting a cheerier tone for a whole neighborhood.

The placement of works also did not depend on the celebrity status of the artist. The well known artist Shepard Fairey began his Obey Giant campaign in Providence in the 1990’s and was commissioned by the organization AS220 to paint a mural about the landmarks of the city that shaped him along a smaller side street. On his website he explains how each of the places pictured where an important feature during his eight years in the city and as a student at RISD.


OBEY Mural (left) in Providence

Another series of murals were designed and painted by youth through the organization AS220 Youth. AS220 Youth is a “free arts education program for young people ages 14-21, with a special focus on those in the care and custody of the state.” One of their initiatives helps provide summer employment for teens through mural paintings. Local businesses, such as a tire shop, and organizations like a local library, have hired and worked with groups of youth to develop murals specifically suited for the places’ needs. At the beginning of every project the youth work in-depth with their clients to design the overall piece. In the case of the library piece, the patron’s ideas were also taken into account to design an inviting outdoor reading space.

Provience Youth Mural

AS220 Youth Mural at BTS Tire & Service

Providence Art Windows

At the scale of the street, art has also been used to improve the pedestrian experience in downtown Providence. Even though Providence’s downtown has many revitalized streets filled with shops and restaurants, there still remain some unoccupied retail spaces. Providence Art Windows is a program aiming to further revitalize the Downcity neighborhood, by filling 10 empty retail spaces with juried art installations. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the windows change three times per year and feature local as well as nationally known artist. A combination of local residents, downtown artists and professionals make up the jury that selects the works, providing a nice local twist to the final selection of works.


A Providence Art Window March 2015

PopUp Providence 

Another program that functions throughout the city to provide creative interventions is PopUp Providence. This urban place-making program aims to insert “interactive, artistic and cultural displays and interventions throughout the City’s 25 neighborhoods.” The program provides grants through the Providence Redevelopment Agency to provide “quick, temporary and inexpensive interventions that engage residents, workers and visitors of all ages, and enliven the city.” The program won the United States Conference of Mayors 2014 Outstanding Achievement City Livability Award.


AS220’s Night Visions Space

On a sunny Sunday afternoon I happened upon the PopUp project “NightVisions” by local Providence organization AS220. Originally intended to be used as a space to show performance and experimental film in the summer of 2014, during a spring weekend in 2015 the space also doubled as a park for people to enjoy the sunshine after a long winter. On another less sunny spring workday it also functioned as an inviting open space to walk through, providing a break from the denser downtown urban form.

RISD Racks

At a smaller scale RISD Racks is a project that provided beautifully designed and functional bike racks downtown through a collaborative process. This project involved RISD students building and installing 20 new bike racks throughout RISD’s downtown campus, on public sidewalks in 2013. It came about through an alliance between RISD student organizations and the Steelyard, an organization of craftspeople in northern Providence. Since the main portion of RISD’s campus is located east of the downtown Providence, in the College Hill neighborhood, this project functioned to bring students’ work into the more professionally oriented downtown area of the city. The competition not only gave exposure to students but, also allowed them to contribute to their city through functional and beautiful pieces.


A RISD Rack in Downtown Providence

Although I was aware of a few of these creative projects before my trip to Providence I happened upon most of these works as I was exploring the city. After researching how many of these artistic interventions came about it was exciting to see how collaborative the processes were. By leveraging federal and local funding opportunities from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Providence Redevelopment Agency, with local knowledge and creativity from university students, youth, professionals, and NGOs, Providence has developed a rich culture of urban art and design. The fact that many of these works came about through continuing programs and not just one time projects, such as the rotating juried Providence Art Windows, or PopUp Providence, also further provides interesting prospects for the city’s future creative development. As Providence continues to rebrand and redevelop itself as a creative capital its continuing efforts to recognize and highlight the work of its people will provide it with a many creative urban interventions for the future.


All photos were taken by the author.


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