December 21, 2012
by Elizabeth Miller
Here’s Senator Whitehouse welcoming everyone to the grants workshop and introducing me. Photo courtesy of the office of Senator Whitehouse.
When I told a friend of mine I was heading to Providence, her eyes lit up. “It’s always been a dream of mine to go to Providence,” she said. I laughed as she explained her obsession with the late 90s TV series, Providence, which featured a young, successful plastic surgeon who leaves her life in Hollywood to return home to her family in Rhode Island.
Well, I don’t know the sitcom, but I do know that Rhode Island is the kind of place that keeps bringing you back. This trip was my second to the state—my first was in September, when I travelled with Rocco to Trinity Rep to join Senator Jack Reed, a great supporter of the agency and the arts as a whole, for the launch of Blue Star Theatres, a program from Theater Communications Group, Blue Star Families, and Met Life Foundation that offers free and discounted theater tickets for military families and veterans.
For this visit, I would be presenting at a grants workshop hosted by Rhode Island’s other great arts-supporting Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse. In my work in Congressional Affairs at the NEA, these workshops are my favorite part of my job. The Senator’s staff planned a day packed with activities, beginning with the workshop for potential NEA grant applicants.
The workshop was at the Save the Bay Center, a gorgeous venue that overlooks the Narragansett Bay. Vivian Spencer, who handles arts issues for Senator Whitehouse, kindly picked me up and drove us to the center. On the way, she explained that they chose Save the Bay because many artists go there to paint. When we arrived, I could see why. The view across the water was stunning. As a native of southern California, my mind relaxed as my thoughts drifted to my family’s home in Huntington Beach.
Senator Whitehouse arrived and delivered some very warm welcoming remarks. He quoted Rocco’s favorite phrase about the state’s relationship with the arts, that “Rhode Island gets it.” It was great to hear his support for the NEA and his commitment to helping his constituents compete for federal grants. Rhode Island has an incredibly active art scene, especially for a state that is just 45-minutes wide. We had more than 80 attendees, which was pretty impressive for a rainy Monday morning at 8:30 am.
My presentation covered the different grant opportunities the NEA offers, including some tips for applying. Through these workshops, my biggest goal is always to encourage more organizations to apply for NEA grants. Often, artists and not-for-profit leaders think that their organizations are too small for NEA funding or that we don’t fund new work. My job is to dispel these myths and let them know how friendly the NEA staff is. “We want to hear from you. Call us with your questions!”
It’s fun to see what catches the crowd’s attention. Almost everyone bent their heads down to take notes when I mentioned that the NEA funds more than 40 percent of the applications we receive. “Please apply!” I chanted again and again. Randy Rosenbaum, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, made me laugh when he closed the workshop by borrowing a phrase from the lottery: “You can’t win if you don’t play!” I hope that we see a lot of applications from Rhode Island next year.
After the workshop, Vivian and Rele Ritter (another one of the Senator’s fabulous staffers) took me to meetings to learn about a few Rhode Island arts projects. I was thrilled to speak with Barnaby Evans, the artist behind the iconic WaterFire, an incredible installation of bonfires, various performances, and music all along the three rivers of downtown Providence. Everyone talks about WaterFire. The taxi driver from the airport told me that he used to take his five kids to see it when they were little. Unprompted, the man sitting next to me on the plane told me that I should go to WaterFire. I didn’t get to see it that trip, but I am planning on going back some time to catch the show.
Next, I met Lynne McCormack, Arts, Culture and Tourism director for the City of Providence. She gave me an update on the Our Town grant the city received from the NEA in 2011 to redesign Kennedy Plaza (a major bus station) and bring in more arts programming. I loved hearing about all the different arts groups that participated in the project, including AS220, which works with youth. The AS220 kids took photographs of the plaza and used their art to turn one of the buses into a mobile gallery that drives all around the state.
Finally, I sat down with Barbara Wong and learned about ¡City Arts!, a community arts organization for at-risk youth. Barbara told me about the history of the neighborhood and the community center, which started in large part because of a nun named Sister Anne Keefe. Sister Anne is famous in the community and, from what I heard, fearless when it comes to helping improve the lives of the city’s youth. As the story goes, one day Sister Anne was at a stoplight in the neighborhood when some rambunctious youth surrounded her car and began to bounce and rock it. When they realized it was Sister Anne inside, they ran away in fear. The incident led Sister Anne to think that perhaps the young people in her neighborhood did not have enough activities to occupy their time. She worked to secure the building ¡City Arts! uses for arts education activities today, 20 years later. I left wishing I had been able to meet Sister Anne.
After a very full day, it was time to leave Providence and head back to D.C. When I got to the airport, I made sure to pick up a postcard of WaterFire for my friend. Maybe she and I will come together next time!