PAWTUCKET — It had been frigid and icy getting around and the sprawling Hope Artiste Village was the last stop on a tiring, whirlwind tour of Rhode Island's arts scene, but Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, still exuded enthusiasm about the people and places he visited.
“Rhode Island gets it,” said Landesman. “It is an arts state. Rhode Island has the most working artists, per capita, than any other state in the country, and what I'm taking back is information showing how the arts can be a model for economic development.”
Landesman's quick visit to the Ocean State last Friday was hosted by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who serves as an ex-officio member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body to the NEA. “I invited Chairman Landesman here because I wanted him to see the different aspects of Rhode Island's arts community so he could get a sense of its depth and breadth,” said Whitehouse. “And, to see what a difference the arts community makes in Rhode Island's economy and all of the the jobs associated with it.”
Whitehouse and Landesman began the day with a roundtable discussion at the Rhode Island Foundation about arts and the economy. During the discussion, the NEA chairman heard from representatives of RiverzEdge, the Gamm Theatre, and the Warwick Museum of Art. Landesman also showcased the new official NEA logo, which was designed by a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. From there, Whitehouse and Landesman went on to visit RISD, Trinity Repertory Company, and Gallery Z in Providence; the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School in East Providence, and Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket.
At Hope Artiste Village on Main Street, Landesman was given a tour of several arts related businesses by Michael R. Gazdacko, director of development and operations for the mill complex. Accompanying the visitors were Randy Rosenbaum, executive director for the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, City Council President David Moran, District 5 City Councilor Jean Philippe Barros, and Herb Weiss, the city's economic and cultural affairs officer.
Gazdacko explained how the 600,000-square foot, former candy factory had been purchased by developers in 2005 and redeveloped as a combination commercial/residential project.
While the residential portion has lagged due to the downturn of the housing market, the mill is currently home to 95 businesses that employ a total of over 400 people.
“We have a lot of incubator businesses here,” Gazdacko said. “Metal workers, woodworkers, artists, along with a restaurant and a rock club. Many of them have started off small and then expanded to larger spaces here,” he explained.
Landesman and Whitehouse met with Gail Ahlers, of Ahlers Designs, where the RISD graduate showcased her line of decorative metal giftware items. She explained how she incorporates other Rhode Island-made products, including boxes and packaging, into her operation, which sells to over 100 stores and individual customers nationwide.
The NEA chairman and the U.S. senator also spoke with Asher Dunn, a RISD graduate and the owner of Keeseh Studio, a communal woodworking space for professional and novice woodworkers; and Allan Schinazi, the owner of Solution Nexus, a provider of technical solutions for information systems and product development.
Next, it was on to McCarten Violins, where owner Dennis McCarten chatted with Landesman about how he came to be a craftsman and repairer of finely hewned string instruments. The NEA chairman also poked his head into the studio of Mike Bryce, and spoke briefly to the painter about his business as a professional artist.
Randy Rosenbaum, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, said of Landesman's visit, “It's phenomenal to have him here. Basically, the nation's highest arts official has come here to gush about what we are doing by connecting jobs and connecting the arts community to community life,” said Rosenbaum. “He (Landesman) came here with an understanding of the good stuff we are doing, and he's even been surprised about what he's learned. It exceeded his original understanding.”
Landesman concurred with this, commenting on his way out of Hope Artiste Village that he had been not only impressed by what he had seen of Rhode Island's thriving art/business sector but that it was “even more” than what he had envisioned.
Mayor Donald Grebien said, “We're fortunate to have the NEA chairman here to visit and to realize the importance of the city's support of the arts as a means of economic development.”
Grebien said that while the arts foundation in the city began with his predecessor, former Mayor James E. Doyle, he pledged to be “as supportive, and in some ways, even more so” of the local arts community. “We need to push it along and move it to the next step,” he stated.