Saturday, July 5, 2014

Public Art in Providence, RI circa 1858

I will be presenting at NEASA [] Oct 17-18, 2014. 
This is a follow-up to my earlier work on this landmark 1850s RI Public Art commission.

Performing “the Public” in Public Art:
Rhode Island’s First Public Statue (1858) in Historic Context

Nancy Austin, PhD
Independent Scholar (Newport, RI)

“This is the first public statue in Rhode Island!  
Let it be but the beginning of a phalanx of statues!” 

So proclaimed Providence, RI artist Francis Hoppin at the 1858 dedication of this larger than life statue of Benjamin Franklin in downtown Westminster St. where it stood proudly in a niche of the new Franklin Lyceum until that building’s demolition in 1926. The statue shows Benjamin Franklin as the common man printer who stepped up to help his country as a diplomat during the American Revolution.

My proposed paper provides three historical contexts for thinking about this work of public art that is now owned by Roger Williams University.  First, who was the “public” that was being newly addressed in 1858, since this was not the first time sculpture was added to either a Providence building or an outdoor location?  Second, how might the Franklin Lyceum’s downtown location on the West Side of Providence and Hoppin’s use of the word “phalanx” direct our attention to historic and endlessly negotiated East Side/West Side class issues that impact defining Providence as a whole city? Three, the ownership provenance of this statue from Lyceum to bank/s to RWU is a timely opportunity to discuss best practices for preserving cultural patrimony in a nation such as America that relies on private/public stewardship of the common good. How might RWU best honor this responsibility?

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