Cultural institutions like museums used to be seen exclusively as luxuries for the wealthy, but community art projects have become a great way to revive neighborhoods through creativity. But public galleries, community art organizations, performing art institutions, arts councils and public arts organizations have a proven ability to support & celebrate traditionally divested communities.
This happens when community art projects or cultural events succeed in uniting community members into a collective whole through a sense of dignity & pride. Imagining new community improvement projects, or even personal aspirations, even more community members become inspired to create.
The story of Providence, Rhode Island, is a telling example. Providence is built at the convergence of two rivers, but in the 1950’s, the city paved over the polluted downtown waterways with roads, rail yards and parking lots. Then in the 1990’s, the city reversed course and uncovered the rivers, cleaned up the area, and lined the waterways with public promenades and pedestrian-friendly parks.
The city then launched a downtown public art event called WaterFire. Nearly a mile of downtown Providence was transformed into a festival of music, artistic performances, boat parties, and ceremonial bonfires.
The festival is named for the one hundred fire baskets, or “braziers,” filled with fragrant local firewood and placed at regular intervals in the waterways. They’re set on fire at dusk and the booming music from the elaborate speaker system seems to dance along with the flames.
Visitors from around the world now come to attend the FireWater Festival, bringing disposable income that boosts sales for local shops, restaurants, and hotels. Local residents volunteer for and attend the event year after year. Through cooperation between the city administration, businesses, the nonprofit sector, and hundreds of committed citizens, the city revived its economy. More importantly, FireWater invigorated Providence’s community spirit and self image.
Any town or city can follow the example of Providence. There is no need for converging rivers, or sports teams, or any unique landmark to launch a successful community campaign around artistic appreciation. A simple display of art in the community is enough to get people to step out of their daily routine, into a collective space, and acknowledge not just who is in their neighborhood, but what feelings they have in common, and what they can accomplish together.