Friday, July 30, 2010

Surprising Providence

Recently, a blogger named Nomadic Matt posted a provocative tweet. He asked "What are the places you have no desire to visit?" and he mentioned that he didn't have any desire to go to Saudi Arabia.

Now there are some places I won't visit, such as Myanmar, because people I respect have called for a boycott on travel there. But that doesn't mean I don't wish I could visit.

In fact, I can't think of anyplace I wouldn't want to set foot in, at least once. Long experience has taught me (hello Moline, IL! hello Birmingham, AL!) that whatever preconceptions I've had about a place are going to be turned upside down once I'm there. And that always, always, I'm going to find something in the place that makes the trip worth my while.

Take Providence, RI, where I currently am. Frankly, it wasn't on the top of my list. I'd visited half a dozen times in the past, mostly on business or to see friends. It had been pleasant. But today and last night, I approached the city like a tourist and I have to say it proves my point: look for worthwhile diversions and ye shall find them!

Like the superb Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Not only does the museum house works by some of the big names in art for the last two centuries--Rothko, Warhol, John Singer Sargent, Monet, Manet and more--it also stretches far into the past displaying masterworks from ancient Egypt and Asia. An imposing, serene 9-foot tall Buddha--one of the largest Japanese statues in the United States--takes over all over one large gallery, transforming it into an impromptu temple.

The museum's contemporary art collection is none too shabby, either, and illuminated (as all the areas are, frankly) with wonderfully informative, yet succinct, wall text. If another work of art is referenced by the artists, the curators let you know. If an artist is influenced by some historic event, or using a bit of personal history to inform their work, the wall text connects the dots in a downright dynamic manner. Really, whoever curates this museum has a real talent for making visitors feel like they're being guided through by a very savvy friend, who has a flair for the dramatic detail.

I also enjoyed the way the museum works with the up-and-coming artists at RISD. Currently, there's a lovely exhibit pairing ancient Asian textiles with the textiles and fashion pieces they inspired current students to create.

A final must-see at the museum: its stunning collection of decorative arts. This was the first museum, after all, to dedicate an entire wing to American decorative arts and it has objects you're going to wish were in your own home from Frank Lloyd Wright, Dale Chihuly, Louis Comfort Tiffany and many other less well-known but still copiously talented craftspeople.

One note: the Museum of Art is closed, alas, for the month of August.

I didn't stop at the museum, though. I also made it to the Governor Henry Lippit House Museum (see photos) a Victorian gem of a home, that offers an instructive lesson in faking your way to great design. Throughout the interior are stunning marble walls, precious wood panneling and works of marquetry....all painted on plaster. These works, along with beautifully painted walls meant to evoke the designs of the Alhambra in Spain, give the home a quirky majesty that's really quite compelling. The tour smartly pairs discussion of the interior design and engineering of the house  with information on the tragic history of the family. I don't want to give away the tour's surprises. Go, you'll enjoy it. Open tours takes place every hour on the hour from 11am to 2pm on Fridays, though you can call on other days of the week and they'll usually show you through.

Other cultural treats of the city: strolling through the handsome Brown University Campus and among the boutiques and restaurants of the Down city Arts District. Restaurant and bar hopping in Providence's bustling Italian neighborhood, Federal Hill. Heading to the excellent Trinity Rep for a show.

I look forward to coming back here again, and discovering more.