Perhaps you've seen the banners, with the big, stylized "P" and the tagline, "Providence: The Creative Capital." It's on new signs, city letterhead, and publications; soon you'll see it on tourism and economic development materials — perhaps even on companies' Web sites.
Slowly, subtly, the city has been rebranding itself. Providence has been a hotbed for artists, innovators, and free thinkers since its founding, says Mayor David N. Cicilline, and looking ahead, it needs to talk about itself that way, locally and to the outside world.
But is the message hollow? Is the brand, conceived by Nashville-based North Star Destination Strategies, as meaningless as the firm's "Montrose, Colo.: Look Deeper" or "Greater Lansing, Mich.: Where Culture and Creativity Come Together"?
On February 26, a post on the blog of nail, a local design firm, unleashed a firestorm of criticism — from outrage at the city hiring out-of-state talent to promote its creative assets, to mockery of the designs themselves, which were done by Pawtucket-based Schwadesign.
"The people that make Providence what it is . . . think this branding campaign is bogus and insulting," a local musician remarked on the blog. "It's like a bad caricature."
The digs put city leaders — and those involved in the campaign — on the defensive. Yet the timing was also fortuitous, because just this week, the city was unveiling a separate but closely related project: "Creative Providence," a plan to bolster arts and culture in the city.
Lynne McCormack, who as director of the city's Department of Art, Culture + Tourism has been closely involved in both efforts, says they started separately, both about two years ago, and just happened to end up "mirroring each other."
On one hand, the city had sought to identify its strengths and package them effectively for tourism and economic development; North Star, which does "community branding" nationwide, picked creativity as the unifying theme. On the other hand, officials wanted to give a boost to the arts and culture sector, which a 2007 study by Americans for the Arts found made a $111.8 million annual economic impact, supporting close to 3000 jobs in the city.
The two projects' convergence, McCormack says, makes them both more effective, and it helps ensure that the city reflects its new brand "in a deep and meaningful way," so it's "not just a flashy title," but a true representation of the city's values and priorities.
The "Creative Providence" plan itself, available at creativeprov.org, is being developed with what McCormack says is "unprecedented" levels of input from hundreds of local artists, nonprofit leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, and others in the city, including people who have never been engaged in these types of discussions before.
On Tuesday at the Hotel Providence, consultant Craig Dreeszen, who has developed about 45 such plans across the country, presented an analysis of the materials collected so far, including a survey of more than 2000 city residents and business and nonprofit leaders.
Providence has huge strengths in this area, he said, because it's an "authentic" place, with unmistakable architecture and a distinct culture as well as a rich creative community.
But Providence has serious issues to address, too, he said, especially because with the economy in shatters, the nonprofit-dominated arts and culture sector is "under siege."
Artists struggle to earn a living, Dreeszen found, and say they need affordable health insurance and studios, plus financial support. Arts programs in the schools are weak, creating "anxiety" that students won't be able to appreciate art or develop their own talents. And while the city's population is very diverse, he noted, arts and culture programming and audiences "don't reflect the cultural diversity of Providence."
So what do you do about all this?
Through March 24, the city is hosting "studios" to examine six specific challenges: from how to foster "resilient cultural organizations" to how to inspire "lifelong creative learning." The settings run the gamut — from Durkee, Brown, Viveiros & Werenfels Architects, to the Dirt Palace, to the International Institute — as do the scheduled participants, who extend far beyond the arts and culture sector.
Like the discussion of the "Creative Capital" campaign, it could get a little messy, but McCormack says that's as it should be. Having lived in Providence since 1983 and watched the creative community emerge from the underground, she values the old roughness.
"As we evolve, it's important to figure out how to not lose that grunge, that edge," she says. The goal of the cultural plan is to recognize the creative sector's value and strengthen it on all levels, but also ensure "that it continues to be organic."