Bringing History to Life

Providence's oldest library provides a community forum that is bound to enlighten


One Friday last month, a lively crowd gathered at the Providence Athenaeum on Benefit Street. Sipping wine and sherry, nibbling fresh fruit and spinach squares, they mingled and chatted. Then, in a buzz of excitement, they sat around café tables to watch three erudite lecturers shed light on a shocking art show, a scandalous ballet and a groundbreaking novel - from 1913. The subject matter dated back 100 years; the setting and format of the evening were older still. But the main draw of this salon was active engagement in the present moment.

Christina Bevilacqua, Director of Programs and Public Engagement at the historic library, began the salon series with an eye toward bringing different members of the community together to discuss history, philosophy, science and the arts. Inspired by a New York exhibit on salons through the centuries, she held the first gathering on a cold, February night in 2006. She recalls, “The topic was the history of social conversation, which is not exactly the sexiest topic in the world. I just assumed for the first few months, I was going to have to bribe my friends to come and hope that eventually it would start to catch on.”

No bribes required. Over 40 people attended the first salon, and the popularity rose rapidly from there. These days, around 120 participants come each week, enjoying drinks and light bites to start, presentations to follow and spirited discussion at the end. The free series, held from 5–7pm on Fridays, has become a great “gateway to the weekend,” as Bevilacqua puts it. The relaxed, informal atmosphere welcomes those dropping by after work or meeting up before dinner or the theater. Bevilacqua makes all the tasty finger foods herself, at first a decision of frugality but now one of the series’ hallmarks. Another sweet touch is the collection of antique sherry glasses. After Executive Director Alison Maxell mentioned in an article that the series was low on them, newspaper readers across the country donated their spare sets.

In the beginning, the series was open solely to Athenaeum members and their guests. It since has been opened to the public, allowing for more diversity and aligning with the library’s mission of providing access to education and opportunity for enrichment. The Athenaeum was founded prior to the development of the country’s public library system, and today’s members pay an annual fee to borrow books. But visitors are - and have always been - welcome to enjoy the place, from the elegant Greek Revival architecture to the handwritten card catalogue and impressive collection of over 170,000 tomes.

The salon series highlights local arts and culture, with creative and collaborative presentations by artists and scholars. Special exhibits in the Athenaeum’s rare book room, curated by Collections Librarian Kate Wodehouse, often accompany it. Support for the series comes from Athenaeum members, grants from the RI State Council on the Arts and the RI Council for the Humanities, and sponsorships from local businesses. Bevilacqua notes, “There’s a high level of rigor in terms of who our presenters are, but it’s always accessible. It’s not about exclusivity. It’s not about elitism. It’s saying, ‘There are all these interesting ideas out in the world, and here’s a place where you can come talk about them.’”

This month in the series, the eclectic subjects range from urban planning to activism. On April 5, architect Doug Kallfelz of Union Studio, Diana Johnson of the 195 Commission, and Johnnie Chace of Greater Kennedy Plaza/ Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy discuss impending changes to Kennedy Plaza and the Jewelry District. On April 12, the RI Foundation’s Neil Steinberg talks about innovation with Kipp Bradford of Brown University’s School of Engineering. And, on April 19, photographer David H. Wells, Community Music Works’ Kimberly Young, and Yellow Peril Gallery’s Robert P. Stack explore the role of the arts in promoting social change.

At the March 1 salon, “Cultural Convulsion/ Incipient Explosion: Art as Augury in 1913,” the presentations were interesting,informative and unexpectedly humorous. In examining the political context of the Armory Show in New York City, for example, Dr. Marilyn S. Kushner of the NY Historical Society noted Teddy Roosevelt’s reaction to seeing Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase: frankly, he preferred his own bathroom rug. And, while discussing the publication of Marcel Proust’s Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Dr. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University detailed an awkward cab ride the writer once shared with James Joyce. The two literary geniuses apparently could find nothing to talk about.

Frequent salon-goers express unabashed enthusiasm for the series. Carl Farmer of Benefit Street considers it “the only way to start the weekend in Providence.” Risa Gilpin, the Athenaeum’s former program director, gives kudos to Bevilacqua for choosing consistently fascinating subjects. Steve Coon attends as often as possible, regardless of whether the topic is familiar or foreign to him. He trusts that he’ll learn something new either way, run into friends and acquaintances, and get a chance to exchange ideas. With a corporate career at Textron, Coon feels that Athenaeum programs like this one help him maintain “a connection to a literary life.”

Marilyn Soscia of Warwick, a former cab driver and deliverer of singing balloon-a-grams, has attended salons for the past few years. When her daughter graduated with a degree in library science, it piqued her own interest in archives. She delights in evocative events like the March 1 salon that offer insight into the past. She observes, “My mother was born in 1920. I wonder what the world was like and what people went through then to write and get their work out. It’s just really, really amazing.”

“The salon series has become kind of an entrée point to what’s happening or about to happen in the Providence cultural scene,” notes Dr. Ethan Kisch, who also likens the series to “college for grown-ups.” He and his wife Dr. Helene Kisch-Pniewski attend half a dozen local arts events each weekend, and particularly appreciate how the series creates a dialogue between arts organizations. Dr. Kisch-Pniewski considers the couple’s salon attendance religious in more ways than one, pointing out, “There’s bread and wine, there’s good community, and then, of course, the sermon, where you could hear something that may change your life or your way of doing things.”

With such a high number of regular attendees, critical analysis and discussion often continues long after each salon ends. Bevilacqua finds, “You have this kind of meta-conversation. There’s a thread that weaves through all these nights as you go though the weeks and the months and the years. And so these resonances happen without anybody really trying to make them happen.”

In contrast to the myriad modern options for logging in and opting out of human interaction, the salon series at the Athenaeum offers a fun, free way to engage with others, explore new ideas and connect with the community at large. That doesn’t happen often, and certainly not with sherry and spinach squares. As Bevilacqua concludes, “It’s modeling a certain kind of civic discourse that we don’t get very much opportunity to practice in the world that we live in. And in a democracy, that’s key.”