My husband and I moved from northern Minnesota to Providence 22 years ago, returning to the East Coast on a Saturday with our cat and a great book that inspired us to drive downtown for dinner in our new city.
We struggled to find parking, but we persevered. “We’d like a table for two, please,” we said when we arrived. “That will be three hours,” the hostess replied. We gasped: “Is it always this busy?”
“Yes,” she replied: “Always.” What had we done?! No one had warned us this city’s well-known restaurant scene offered hours-long ordeals just to get a table.
We didn’t yet understand that she meant it’s always this busy on WaterFire nights, when the braziers on the Providence rivers are lit and attract visitors from near and far. We didn’t know the right question to ask.
We spluttered that we had just moved halfway across the country and hadn’t realized Providence was this busy. She took pity on us: “Take those two corner seats at the bar. I’ll make an exception and bring dinner to you there.”
Fast forward: We’ve built lives and careers here and have raised two children in Providence. We appreciate the intangible, artistic benefits of living in this vibrant city nestled between Boston and New York. This year, I was elected to serve on the WaterFire Providence Board of Directors.
In hindsight, I know the question we should have asked at that restaurant so many years ago: Is tonight a WaterFire?
When we moved here, I continued my journalism career at The Providence Journal, where I worked until leaving the profession in 2018. For my final 7 years there, I covered the state’s economic development efforts, through and beyond the depths of the Great Recession, which pummeled Rhode Island.
I covered the collapse of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios video-game company; efforts by Governor Gina Raimondo (now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce) to help Rhode Island recover and thrive by spurring economic growth; and early efforts to revitalize 26 acres of land in the heart of the city, freed up by the state’s ambitious relocation of Interstate 195.
I often wrote about what was new and unusual. I looked to more successful economies and placemaking efforts in more vibrant communities to highlight what Rhode Island might do differently.
I was aware of the economic impact of WaterFire but didn’t cover the event as out-of-town reporters often would — because, I reasoned, those of us who live here already know about it.
And yet, in this past year on the Board, I’ve discovered that there’s so much more to learn about what WaterFire does.
First, it’s important to note that developing and sustaining successful placemaking efforts requires vision, perseverance, and hundreds of hours of people power.
Under the artistic vision and determination of the organization’s co-CEOs, founder Barnaby Evans and Peter Mello, WaterFire knows exactly how to do this. The event has demonstrated incredible staying power since Evans first installed the award-winning sculpture on Providence’s rivers on New Year’s Eve in 1994.
But beyond lighting the braziers, Evans and Mello are implementing a broader vision for this nonprofit. Over the past decade, they’ve worked to transition WaterFire from an ephemeral arts event to a true Rhode Island institution.
Eight years ago, they led the effort to buy and renovate a cavernous, former manufacturing building into the WaterFire Arts Center. The $13.7-million restoration was part of a broad strategy to sustain the beloved community event and take WaterFire to new heights.
Year-round, the Arts Center hosts artistic installations, indoor exhibitions, conferences, artists’ discussions, and nonprofit galas and community festivals.
WaterFire Providence has partnered with other organizations to create youth leadership, education, and workforce development programs. ArtLab@WaterFire offers workforce development opportunities for BIPOC high school juniors and seniors. WaterFire Accelerate supports six artists under age 30 in a year-long professional development program.
The WaterFire Arts Center has also become home to The Wilbury Theatre Group, which collaborated with WaterFire in the early days of COVID to offer the first live theater again — a “drive-through” show in the Arts Center parking lot, broadcast over theater-goers’ car radios.
Now, when you’re thinking about how to spend your time in Providence, you want to ask about more than the lightings along the river. Just about any day or night of the week, you can ask:
How can WaterFire help me explore the best of Providence?
Maybe through an art installation at the WaterFire Arts Center, such as Umberto “Bert” Crenca’s DIVINE PROVIDENCE, which recently captured the city’s neighborhoods from the perspective of a longtime resident.
Maybe through the BuyArt small works holiday show and sale, which runs from November 16 through January 7.
Maybe by hosting Paula Vogel’s play Indecent at the Wilbury Theatre Group, which opens November 30 and runs through December 17.
Maybe by joining the Brazier Society, a group of WaterFire’s strongest supporters and donors who experience the best seat in the house for WaterFire: an invitation-only reception and boat rides through the flames.
Or maybe WaterFire is calling out to you, urging you to volunteer early on a Saturday morning during the lighting season. You can help build the braziers that will be lit that night — and meet volunteers who keep returning, lighting after lighting, because WaterFire speaks to them, too.
On that kind of morning, you truly begin to understand the grit and muscle and support and love it takes to keep the fires burning.
Join us, won’t you?