Musicians of both local and global acclaim took the stage at the Providence Rink and Kennedy Plaza Sept. 20 for the Urban Carnevale, which celebrated the 10th anniversary of FirstWorks. FirstWorks, a nonprofit created to engage the performing arts in Providence, collaborated with the City of Providence to host musical world debuts while also inspiring new ideas in the community.
Police estimated that close to 7,000 people attended the event during the afternoon and evening, said Kathleen Pletcher, founder and executive artistic director of FirstWorks. The demographic shifted over the course of the event, she observed, with a crowd of mainly older people and families during the afternoon and evening, transforming to a younger and more energized one late at night.
Featured artists included Ribab Fusion, a Moroccan funk group making its U.S. debut, Sidy Maiga, a drummer and Mali native who calls Providence home, and Australia’s Strange Fruit, whose performers emerged from illuminated spheres, “swaying like living sculptures,” Pletcher said. “It was a beautiful, quiet moment of awe.”
“Carnevale is something we wanted to do for our 10th year anniversary. We’re an organization that is really interested in the idea of festivals as a means to gather different kinds of audiences together to break down barriers to the arts and create a more participatory event,” Pletcher said.
The Urban Carnevale overlapped with last weekend’s Better World by Design conference and Design Week R.I., and FirstWorks seized the opportunity to collaborate with these events. “We see that we’re in the center of a city with a lot going on, and we try to coordinate and share information. Our audiences do cross over,” Pletcher said.
FirstWorks emerged from the now-defunct First Night, a one-night festival held in cities across the country. At the time, Pletcher was artistic director of the Providence chapter.
“During the millenium, First Nights everywhere struggled with their relevancy,” Pletcher said, adding that a partnership with the City of Providence allowed her to continue the festivities through FirstWorks.
In 2012, FirstWorks received a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as a part of the Our Town program, which encourages cities to enhance the artistic presence in their communities, Pletcher said. That year, FirstWorks used part of its endowment to create the FirstWorks Festival: On the Plaza, which drew in audiences of over 40,000.
Pletcher said she aims to create partnerships with local organizations to “(show) off Providence as the ‘creative capital,’” adding that she hopes to establish the Festival as an “ongoing signature event.” A second grant from the NEA allowed FirstWorks to kick off this season with the Urban Carnevale.
In addition to these celebrations, FirstWorks aims to promote art education throughout the community.
“Every artist we bring in to FirstWorks is involved with schools and underserved communities in Rhode Island,” Pletcher said.
In last year’s season, FirstWorks served nine schools and 930 students through workshops and performances, said Joe Meisel, deputy provost and FirstWorks trustee, who is in charge of educational programming. In the past year, the program has served 4,300 students.
“The educational mission of FirstWorks was not a part of its original mission but has sprung up over time,” Meisel said. “Providence and Central Falls are under-resourced, and FirstWorks is a way to bring top artists to a place where the arts department is usually the first to go.”
Meisel said he tries his best to attend the performances to which students have been invited. Seeing their intense excitement is “such a tremendous reward,” he said. “It’s an important experience in developing an appreciation for the arts, and that’s the first time they’re identifying art in a personal way.”
“In this year, we’re considering more structured kinds of opportunities that we can create in the education sphere,” Meisel said. “We’re thinking about how FirstWorks should evolve in the future, and how it can be prominent on a national scene.”
In addition to school workshops, audiences — including students — may also engage with the performers through dinners, jam sessions and artist panels.
The 10th anniversary season of FirstWorks revolves around the theme “Artistic Legends and Local Luminaries,” Pletcher said.
Under this motif, FirstWorks will bring in violinist Regina Carter to play at the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium Oct. 18. Pletcher first saw Carter perform at the Birdland jazz club in New York, where she said she was intrigued by Carter’s music and “the sort of journey she goes on, the performance, the research, personal history.”
Carter will arrive early in the week of her performance to speak with students in high school and middle school, Pletcher said. “Connecting these kids with artists is more about pathways to the future and role models.”
FirstWorks will bring composer Philip Glass to Providence in February 2015. Glass will deliver a keynote address, perform alongside violinist Tim Fain and introduce a concert performed by the Brown University Orchestra, which is slated to play one of Glass’s pieces the night after his performance.
FirstWorks’ upcoming schedule of events represents “a continuation of what we’ve been doing since the very beginning” by nurturing ties between artists and community, Pletcher said. “That really feeds into who we are.”
Due to incorrect information from a source, a previous version of this article and summary deck incorrectly stated that FirstWorks has served 4,300 students in the past decade. In fact, it has served 4,300 students in the past year. The Herald regrets the error.