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Lecture explores community building through art

Seeking to ease social tensions, speakers imagine Providence’s future through artistic lens

The sixth annual Senator Claiborne Pell Lecture on Arts and Humanities featured Arlene Goldbard, an activist and author, who spoke about art and culture as catalysts for social transformation Wednesday.

The event, entitled “A Culture of Possibility for Providence,” also featured a panel of local artists who shared their stories with an audience of students and art enthusiasts in the Metcalf Auditorium of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.

Providence “is the perfect place … for deploying the gifts of artists in the service of real democracy and real prosperity as a community,” Goldbard told The Herald. The diversity of the population and “social stresses” such as poverty have created a need for artistic outlets in Providence, she said. Local organizations have responded to this need by offering numerous youth arts programs in the city, she added.

Various local arts initiatives were also included in the planning of the event, said Lynne McCormack, director of the city’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism. This year, the department partnered with the Providence Athenaeum, Community MusicWorks and Providence Youth Arts Collaborative. “We want to inspire the local community,” McCormack said, adding that she hopes the event will be a “jumping off point for more planning in the city.”

The event’s organizers chose speakers “who have some kind of national perspective” on art and the community, in hopes that the line-up would “enlighten the work that’s already here,” McCormack said.

In the opening remarks, Mayor Angel Taveras honored the memory of Claiborne Pell,  who served as a United States senator from Rhode Island from 1961 to 1997. Taveras emphasized the city’s  desire to use arts and culture as “core strategies” for reinvention.

“Culture is a great investment and the government needs to play a leadership role in that investment,” Taveras said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Clay Pell, grandson of Claiborne Pell, reflected on the rich history of arts in his family. Claiborne Pell’s philosophy was that the arts are not “something extra” but an integral part of the community, Pell said.

Goldbard began her lecture by describing the internal changes necessary to fluidly integrate arts in the community. “How do we convert a culture of skepticism and demoralization to a culture of possibility?” Goldbard asked. There is a need to “change our stories to change the world,” she said, adding that, “the given reality is not the only option. Another world is possible.”

Panelists then shared their personal experiences and inspirations as artists. Erik Ehn, head of playwriting and professor of theater arts and performance studies, said theater spaces could be specialized and integrated into currently existing community spaces, such as food kitchens.

Holly Ewald, visual artist and founder and director of Urban Pond Procession, said her path to becoming an artist began when she was working with children in Detroit and decided “to tell their stories through pictures,” she said.

Sokeo Ros, dancer, choreographer and director of hip-hop at Everett: Company, Stage and School, said he was involved with art until his late teens. “You don’t really understand (art) until it hits you in the face,” Ros said.

By the time of his high school graduation, Ros was performing break dance, going on tours and eventually teaching  dance at universities. “I found the social responsibility in being an artist and giving back to the community,” he said.

Goldbard ended the lecture by visualizing Providence 20 years in the future, where arts, culture and community are woven “into every aspect of public and private life,” she said. This imagined Providence of 2034 has hospitals with storytellers in the waiting rooms, artists involved in children’s education, “mobile art trucks” and “pop-up restaurants,” she said, adding that she hopes Providence artists will be able to “build the social connective tissue” that is “critical to a resilient city.”



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