Three years ago, developer Cornish Associates and the Arts & Business Council of Rhode Island partnered to open the Space at Alice at 186 Union St., a venue for monthly, professionally curated exhibits designed to unite artists, collectors, and visitors interested in Providence’s contemporary visual art scene.
The gallery’s nonprofit model allowed it to showcase the work of emerging artists, who got to keep 75 percent of the proceeds of their sales — a higher ratio than commercial galleries can afford to offer. By August 2006, the Space had presented 138 artists, sold more than $115,000 in artwork, and chalked up consistently high attendance rates at its 35 shows.
But downtown’s evolving development means an ever-shifting hierarchy of need and use for space. The kitchen of the adjacent tazza caffé is now expanding into what comprised half of the Space, limiting its continued suitability as a gallery space — but making it perfect, perhaps, for a tiny boutique.
Two weeks back, clothing designers Devon King and Karen Beebe were at work on the newly configured, still unfinished storefront, now sporting lipstick-red accent walls, in preparation for the October 13 opening of their new shop, Queen of Hearts.
The boutique features their own work, plus a changing array of locally created clothing, accessories, paintings, sculpture, house wares, and gifts. The two test-drove the cooperative retail concept last December with a two-month “pop-up” at nearby 50 Aborn St. “We had great response,” recalls King, “and learned so much — how to merchandise, deal with money, work with other artists. That experience gave us a foothold and the desire to expand.”
Beebe and King envision providing Providence with what such D.I.Y design-obsessed cities as Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Toronto offer — “A spot where you can find unique things you’ve never seen before and won’t see anywhere else” — and where proximity to the designers means the potential for custom-fitting and creative collaboration. They are also dreaming up collaborative possibilities with downtown denizens and retailers.
Peter Bramante, the Arts & Business Council’s executive director, agrees that permanent exhibition space remains a crucial need. During the council’s transition to independence from the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, he sees meeting that need, though, as beyond ABC’s current capacity. For now, the council will work to broker special events and site-specific installations/programming, but also to press policymakers to address the questions linked to the need for exhibition space.
When it comes to the city and various interested groups, Bramante says, “We’re all talking about the same things: what is the importance of art to our civic and economic life? How do we create affordable live/work spaces and a mix of commercial and non-profit exhibition sites for artists? How do we centralize and make available resources and information about our visual arts culture, so that a viable network of creators, consumers, and collectors can develop?”
Not surprisingly, the need for affordable live/work and exhibition space also topped the “arts and culture” portion of the Charrette sponsored last week by the Providence Department of Planning & Development.