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Big Ideas in the Smallest State: The Underground Art Scene in Providence, RI

As home of Rhode Island School of Design, Providence has long been a training ground for visual artists, but most outsiders don't know that the town has an energetic underground scene apart from the college. Here's how visitors can get in on the action.

As home of the famous Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Providence, Rhode Island, has long been a training ground for the country's budding visual artists. But most outsiders don't know that tiny Providence also has an energetic underground art scene apart from the college. And unlike the New York art world, where it's all about the individual artist and name dropping, the art scene in Providence is grassroots, communal, and intertwined with the larger city community. The key players are collectives of artists, and their art is the culmination of many people's hard work and dedication -- it's about individuals coming together, having fun, making things, and celebrating them. As a visitor, you can get in on the action too.

Take an Art Walk

For a crash course in the local and mainstream gallery scene, stroll around town on Gallery Night (, the first Thursday of each month between March and November. Twenty-two galleries keep their doors open until 9pm, offering free lectures, crafts demonstrations, live music, and special guided tours of their collections. Participating galleries -- including the RISD Museum of Art and the John Brown House Museum -- are commercial and non-profit spaces that showcase contemporary painting, photography, folk art, and large-scale mixed media. Though Providence is easily navigable and best enjoyed by foot, Gallery Night has its own school bus that runs a (free) loop connecting all the participating galleries.

Participate in AS220

AS220 ( is an artists' collective and non-profit organization that owns several historic buildings downtown dedicated to exhibition and work space. Founded on the idea that art should be experimental and organic, AS220's first purpose is to provide a space in which the city and state's residents can learn, practice, develop, and display their art. However, the collective's programs are open to all curious and serious artists, from Rhode Island or elsewhere. AS220 has its own darkroom, print shop, galleries, and performance space. Though the darkroom is only open to members, as a visitor you can try your hand at print making and attend a variety of workshops on silk screening, intaglio, or letterpress printing. Courses run from a few hours to four days and range in price from free to $125. Occasionally, the print shop also hosts a free drop-in workshop where attendees get to make their own tiny prints. Your souvenir will be your own work of art. Check the schedule at

The AS220 performance space (115 Empire St.) doubles as a gallery and hosts several events every night, as well as regular monthly social gatherings -- from poetry slams, to life drawing sessions, to concerts by local and national musicians, to theater performances. All events are free to $6. Pick up a copy of their calendar at restaurants and shops around town, or go online: Attached to the performance space is the official AS220 bar (tel. 401/861-9190; Tues-Fri 5pm-1am, Sat noon-1am, Sun and Mon 6pm-1am) and the Taqueria Pacifica (tel. 401/621-8785; Tues-Sat 11am-10pm; Sat 11am-3pm; $3-$8), serving organic and locally sourced (even vegan-friendly) burritos and tacos.

Gawk at Big Nazo

Just one block off Kennedy Plaza, Providence's downtown transportation hub, is the fantastical gallery and lab of the street performance company Big Nazo (25 Fulton St.; no phone; You'll immediately recognize it by the colorful, 10-foot creatures on display in the wraparound window. Big Nazo's dozen or so artists perform in huge, elaborate, and whimsical costumes and puppets of rubber, foam, fabric, and plastic created in the lab from conception to finished product. The characters are human, animal, vegetable, and alien. Though many of the costumes look grotesque or macabre at first glance, their performers give them a loveable soul and personality. This is puppetry at its best.

The workshop is open whenever the troupe is in town -- hope they're around when you are. Waltz in, and you'll likely trip over someone measuring, cutting, painting, or trying on a new costume for an upcoming event. They'll likely be more than happy to show you what they're working on. Props, costumes, and musical instruments are strewn about the room: a pot-bellied alien lounges on a couch; oversized human masks, dinosaur-like heads, and even a giant bunch of grapes hang from the coat racks; a life-sized puppet of an elderly man (glasses, pickle nose, polka dot tie) slumps in a chair. Even without their human counterparts, the puppets seem full of life. It's a bit like the changing room of an off-off-Broadway show where the biggest stars are creativity and ingenuity.

Big Nazo brings their special brand of puppetry to parades, concerts, and festivals around the world (and a fair share of local weddings). Check their calendar to see if they're performing in Providence when you're there, or if they'll be featured at an upcoming event in your hometown (

Warm Up with WaterFire

The city's centerpiece activity in summer and autumn is another free art event, WaterFire (, which takes place on the three rivers that converge in downtown Providence (the Providence, Moshassuck, and Woonasquatucket). Nearly every Saturday from late May through early October, 100 small bonfires in metal baskets are set ablaze on the rivers, while ambient music is projected from the river banks, and vendors from local restaurants sell finger foods and desserts. The flickering fires cast a romantic glow over the entire river. With water-level walkways and several short, arched bridges, a few lit with gaslamps, the river does bear a resemblance to the canals of Venice, Italy. You can even take a gondola ride with Gondolari (tel. 401/421-8877;; $139 for two people; advance reservations only). WaterPlace Park, a small amphitheater set on the riverbank, is the scene of music and theater performances, while Sovereign Plaza, really just a broad intersection downtown, gets a stage and dance floor for a huge dance party. The whole city -- plus ΒΌ of Boston and the nearby suburbs -- comes to stroll, eat, and jostle for position to gaze contentedly at the fires. When the city plans a full night of events, the crush of humanity can be intense. Be sure to check the calendar online to see what events are planned during your trip.

WaterFire is a success not just because it takes advantage of the human compulsion to stare into fire. The event's history is unique to Providence and in many ways exemplifies the strength of the city's communal will. For decades, the rivers in downtown Providence were covered by concrete -- an urban planning project aimed at managing traffic. In the 1970s, Providence's controversial Mayor Buddy Cianci began a major downtown revitalization project that ultimately uncovered, relocated, and reclaimed the rivers for public enjoyment. WaterFire was first conceived as one artist's installation in 1994, as part of a New Year's arts and cultural festival. The popularity of the fires spurred locals to push the artist to do it again the year after; from then on, public funds and volunteers have supported WaterFire and made it into an annual summer ritual and public art exhibition. Though admission is free, donations are greatly appreciated.

Where to Dine

Given that Providence's major arena is sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts, you might not know that this little city of around 200,000 people has a wealth of sophisticated independently owned restaurants. Providence has more restaurants per capita than any other major city in the U.S., thanks in no small part to Johnson & Wales (Emeril Lagasse, class of '78), the world's biggest culinary school, based right in downtown.

For Italian tapas, fully organic entrees, or thin crust pizza -- all with fine-tuned wine pairings and river views -- head to Bacaro (262 S. Water St.; tel. 401/751-3700;; main courses $19-$30; Tues-Fri 5pm-10pm; Sat 4pm-10pm), headed by a former chef of Al Forno (577 South Main St.; tel. 401/273-9760;; main courses $20;Tues-Fri 5-10pm, Sat 4-10pm), the foodie haven that started it all. For picnic supplies and Italian finger foods, from marinated buffalo mozzarella to pasta salads, go directly to Federal Hill (Providence's Little Italy -- one of the best in America, according to Mario Batali) and Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Ave; tel. 401/421-9105;; deli foods by weight; Mon-Sat 8:30am-6pm, Sun till 2pm). You can easily spark a debate with a local over who serves the city's best brunch. Is it Olga's Cup + Saucer (103 Point St.; tel. 401/454-5773; Mon-Fri 7am-5pm, Sat 8am -5pm; $5-$10), with its freshly baked breads and pastries, or Nick's on Broadway (500 Broadway; tel. 401/421-0286; Wed-Sat 7am-3pm and 5:30-10pm, Sun 8am-3pm; main courses $15-$25) for classic diner food with a modern twist? For your midday meal, sample the bounty of New England's farms at Farmstead Lunch (186 Wayland Ave.; tel. 401/274-7177;; sandwiches $8; Tues-Sat 10am-7pm), from their daily-changing menu. Or head to Cuban Revolution (50 Aborn St.; tel. 401/331-8829;; sandwiches, soup, salad under $8, main courses up to $16; Sun-Thurs 11-1am, Fri & Sat 11-2am) for a dash of socialism tossed in with your pulled pork.

The list goes on and on. For the latest reviews and openings, be sure to read up on:

Where to Stay

Providence has its fair share of chain hotels, but opt for something homegrown instead. The Old Court Bed & Breakfast (144 Benefit St.; tel. 401/751-2002 or 351-0747;; Nov 15- Mar 15 $115-$195, Mar 15-Nov 15 $145-$215) is on one of the city's most beautiful and historic streets, a mere 5-minute walk from downtown, right in the "mile of history". The building dates from 1863, when it was originally a rectory, and today's 10 bedrooms are decorated with period furnishings and highly elaborate wallpaper. Breakfast includes fruit, breads, cereals, and a main dish (perhaps omelets or French toast).

Visitor Information

You can get information before you go from the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau ( When in town, stop by the Rhode Island Convention Center at 1 Sabin St. (tel. 800/233-1636; Mon-Sat 9am-5pm) for brochures, listings of galleries and restaurants, and information on local events.

Many thanks are due to Kristen Adamo and Brian Hodgeof the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau for their help in researching this article.