Art

Making the City a Gallery

The Avenue Concept is reimagining Providence’s public spaces through murals, sculpture and other public works

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Even if you’ve never heard of The Avenue Concept, odds are you’re already familiar with their work. Perhaps you stopped on Empire Street to admire a 12-foot blue-green bronze sculpture of a woman’s face – Colossal Fragment by South African artist Lionel Smit. Maybe you’ve spied Andrew Hem’s stunning Misty Blue, a mural of a lonely Cambodian girl covering an entire wall on Orange Street. From BEZT’s heartbreaking She Never Came painting of a man and sadly tossing a ring above a tablecloth as his pet rat watches, to vibrant electrical boxes and unique sculptures throughout the city, to AS220 founder Umberto Crenca’s new installation on Weybosset Street, Providence’s first official public art program has certainly made its mark on the city.

Started with a seed grant from The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation over three years ago, the Avenue Concept proudly displays its commitment to public art through colorful paintings, sculptures and spray paint cans organized in every color, neatly filling an entire wall of cubbyholes at its Lockwood Street offices. Founder and Artistic Director Yarrow Thorne believes in the power of public art to transform a city not just aesthetically but socially: “When our first murals were completed, all of a sudden those parts of the city started to change,” he says. “Parking lots were kept cleaner by the population, people were stopping in from all over the world, and they were looking upwards. Local businesses were getting new visitors as well.”

Providence is a city rich in cultural diversity and creative heritage, but when art is 30, 50 or 100 years old, “there’s no contrast because it all looks the same, and many of us weren’t born during those eras,” Yarrow says. When public art projects are installed nearby, however, “there’s a contrast from the historic to something new, and it actually makes the historic details pop more.” The Avenue Concept supports local artists (all but one sculpture on display were made by Providence-based artists), but bringing in international creators like Lionel Smit not only helps to attract greater media and public interest, but also exposes locals to “something totally different, and suddenly new conversations take place,” says Yarrow.

It took years of research, trial and error and countless negotiations with city officials and partners about infrastructure planning to install the more than 170 pieces supported by the Avenue Concept. Integrating concrete pads into sidewalks has turned them into seamless platforms for hosting artwork, and there are plans to keep rotating new works throughout the city on a regular basis.

The Avenue Concept
304 Lockwood Street