Providence Art Club based on equity and diversity
Step into the Providence Art Club and you step into another world, one that began nearly a century and a half ago.
Multiple fireplaces warm its dining room, the walls lit by old gaslight fixtures and paneled in wood fashioned from antique window shutters. Rumor has it that Harry Houdini ate here in the Cabaret Room, a private corner inscribed with the words to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘When the Last Image of Earth is Painted’.
A 1917 Providence Journal article confirms that he turned himself in that year for a straitjacket escape while suspended from the Brownell Building at Exchange Place.
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Around the club’s dining rooms and studios, silhouettes of heads are painted black – tributes to members living and dead.
The first was painted with the likeness of landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister, the second person to sign the club’s Constitution when it was founded in 1880, and an indication of its forward-thinking nature.
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During a visit to the club, gallery director Michael Rose told the story of Bannister, from his birth as a free black man in Canada to his move to Boston, where, according to Rose, he had to do faced obstacles due to the color of his skin and was unable to work in a legitimate studio.
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In 1872 he moved to Providence, later becoming one of the club’s founders. In May 2021, one of Bannister’s works, “The Palmer River”, sold at a Sotheby’s auction at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for over $277,000 – a record.
Six women were also part of the 16-person group that started the club, marking a major difference from other American art clubs of the time that were founded solely by men.
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“Some of the most respected people in the arts community were women, and Bannister was another highly respected person,” Rose said. “If they had left those people out, they knew they would have been lost.”
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Among the founders was Rosa Peckham, the club’s first secretary, who was appointed vice-president about 40 years before women won the right to vote.
In some ways, that was a hallmark of this part of Providence, where next door the Rhode Island School of Design was founded entirely by women.
Five years after the club was founded, he took over the Obadiah Brown house – yes, part of the Brown Family – on Thomas Street. As Rose tells it, he may have a sordid past.
“When we rented it in 1885, there were indications that it was used as a rooming house or a brothel, or something like that,” he said. “It wasn’t used for anything good.”
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Eventually, the club housed numerous art collections and workspaces in the former Brown Brothers home and the three adjoining structures. Check a map and you’ll notice the Providence Art Club owns most of the block. This includes the famous Fleur de Lys building, designed by Sydney Burleigh, which offers artists a studio that they rent for life. The waiting list is short, as the wait for places is long, and only about six people have occupied the ground floor in the history of the club.
Today, the Providence Art Club collection features artists that tourists might see in big cities. A painting by Stacy Tolman is on display in The Met, a piece of furniture by Burleigh is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, and Bannister’s works can be seen across much of the East Coast.
Why did he and 15 others decide to create the institution that has become a piece of Providence history?
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“I think there was a feeling that we’re a small community,” Rose said. “And we’re all going to band together and do this together.”
Providence Journal editor Amy Russo, a transplanted New Yorker, is looking for new ways to find out about her adopted state. If you have any suggestions for this column, email him at [email protected]