The Aurora logo
There is a cool, unfinished sleepiness about Aurora, the new downtown arts and cultural event venue on Westminster Street, on a recent bright spring afternoon. The floor is bare and clean; footfalls echo. Though the space was formerly home to two well-known arts institutions — the Roots Cultural Center and the Providence Black Repertory Company — you wouldn’t know it by looking at the fresh paint and unadorned surfaces. Sam White, Aurora’s Creative Director, sits checking his phone at the empty metal bar. Other than a wall that shows scars from a recent gallery show and a large projection screen that hangs over a small stage at the end of the room, there is little to suggest the huge variety show — Aurora’s grand opening, billed as a “Spectacular Celebration” — set to soon take place here.
Aurora bills itself as “A cabaret lounge and art space with the future of Providence on its mind.” The cabaret bit refers to the relatively small size of the stage, not to any particular programming sensibility, though White adds, “The more freakishness that we can put on display, there’s good that comes from that. . . I would love to have burlesque.”
Part of the venue’s mission is to create a space for public assembly and “enliven this area by putting as much of the local talent up on stage as possible,” he says. He cites AS220’s unjuried, uncensored philosophy as a model, but notes that Aurora will be slightly more curated.
The very fact that White has been tapped by Cornish Associates — the omnipresent downtown real estate developers and owners of the Westminster Lofts and much of that street’s retail space — as creative director suggests something about the direction the venue is headed. He is the founder of Wooly Fair, the pop-up, absurdist arts carnival that takes place each year at the Steel Yard. “With Wooly Fair, the idea was to create an environment that was so shockingly different that people would behave differently there,” he says. Attendees were given new names and encouraged to come in costume; last year’s theme, “Off the Grid and on the Lamb,” was based around human generated electricity.
While White is careful to note that Aurora is an entirely different sort of undertaking, it’s clear that he has a desire to push patrons out of their comfort zone. He notes that Aurora is designed to be a multipurpose space; it’s currently set up to be a gallery, a music venue, a screening room, a theater, and a bar. He calls it the Swiss Army knife of venues, capable of transforming itself quickly from event to event, night to night. “When people see that they’re in an environment where a lot of work has been done to transform this place into a temporary, ephemeral thing, they respond by letting down their guard and acting a little bit different,” he says.