Rhode Island was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America. The state fostered its own industry utilizing what existed making Rhode Island unique and special. The state grew and roads and railroads were built in order to accommodate the industry. Providence, easily accessible by water became a major world seaport. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, the craftspeople and merchants became the primary suppliers of goods for the French and Continental armies. Providence was a city of self-made business entrepreneurs who financed expeditions to the Mediterranean, the Far and Middle East by 1781. Thanks to booming trade, the city grew and flourished; traditional wood homes were transformed into glorious ornate brick mansions. Then, sometime after WWII all that industry left the state leaving a huge legacy of abandoned industrial sites.
Providence is a resistant and somewhat matter-of-fact city, a private place perfectly happy to get along with whatever might come along and to do without, if it does not. The city of aloofness is also home to an art scene that is artsy and low-key but packs a punch with RISD, the art galleries and art competitions in and around Providence and Pawtucket. Today the city boasts a thriving cultural and academic community.
This is a more easy going city than many of the larger art cities of the United States. There is a sense of slowing down and of gathering particularly on Water Fire evenings. There are galleries in converted and restored mills, artists living and working in the same places, art contests sponsored by galleries and art clubs, exhibition spaces available in revitalized mills, and interesting galleries on the Brown Campus. With all this to boast about, there seems to be yet a kind of conscious neglect, a disinclination to promote, and brand beyond the confines of the city.
Nonetheless, gentrification is occurring and areas like Pawtucket and Olneyville are experiencing a renewal in urban planning and development. With cheaper spaces, a friendly scene and a thoughtful audience, the once abandoned outskirts of Providence are making noise in the art world. There is Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket with shops, coffee roasters, yoga, galleries, performance art and restaurants. In Olneyville there is The Plant with artists residences, shops, the famous Cuban Revolution restaurant, Yellow Peril Gallery, Just Art Contemporary Art gallery and GRIN gallery. Down the street from The Plant is Rising Sun Mills hosting residential lofts, commercial spaces and a wonderful restaurant/café. These are all revitalized turn of the century New England mills and exactly what Providence needs, a multifaceted environment that is organic, historic, full of an old world scrappy-type of charm.
With the amazing power and pull of RISD where many young artists come to not only study but begin their careers, Brown University, Providence College and Rhode Island College bring lots of vitality to the city’s intellectual life and with Johnson & Wales University, the largest culinary educator in the world, the city’s restaurants experience world class culinary talent. Thus, it is a wonder why a national museum does not exist in Providence; it would certainly make the city world-class and help bump it up and out of the niche of just being worldly.