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Cliff Wood

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Providence Journal, July 18 2004
by Bill Van Siclen

Gregg Anderson
Cristina di Chiera
Erik Gould
Kathleen Griffin
Elizabeth Keithline
Scott Lapham
Rafael Lyons
Julie Manso and Carl Dunn
the Men of Letters
Rag and Bone Bindery
Howie Snieder
Herb Weiss
Cliff Wood
May Yao

Creative Energy Czar

He marshals the arts to power a more vibrant Providence

It’s nearly 11 p.m. and the crowd at the Providence Black Rep’s weekly Thursday night jam session is getting restless. The weather outside is a mess – clammy, rainy and unseasonably cool – and the audience is badly in need of a warming backbeat.

As if on cue, Black Rep artistic director Donald King jumps behind a turntable and lays down a funky Motown-meets-Eminem beat. The band – a guitarist, bass player and saxophonist – quickly chimes in, improvising over the pulsing rhythm. At times the playing is closer to karaoke than Count Basie. But the audience – a well-integrated mix of black and white artists, musicians and young professionals – doesn’t seem to mind. They’re happy just to have something to tap their toes to between drinks at the Black Rep’s spacious front-lobby bar.

As for the musicians, they keep playing for another two hours before finally calling it quits. That includes the sax player, a self-described “jazz junkie” and Thursday night regular who also happens to be the city's first officially sanctioned arts czar. “This is how I unwind,” explains Cliff Wood, director of Providence’s newly created Department of Art, Culture and Tourism. “Some people go to the gym. Other people stop off for a few beers on the way home. This is what works for me.”

Wood's mandate is almost ridiculously broad. As outlined in series of speeches and policy announcements last fall, the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism is charged with coordinating a wide variety of arts activities, ranging from last month’s Youth First International Arts Festival (organized in conjunction with FirstWorks) to next weekend’s Sound Session Providence music festival at Waterplace Park and the Black Rep. Other duties include providing grants to local arts groups, working with the Providence School Department to shore up the city’s struggling school-arts programs and creating a Providence Film Advisory Panel to promote the city as location for films and television.

As a city department head, Wood is also responsible for keeping in touch with dozens of other government agencies, including the state arts and humanities councils, the Rhode Island Film & Television Office and the city’s two main booster organizations – the Providence Tourism Council and the Providence-Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. Finally, and perhaps most ambitiously, the department is charged with realizing Mayor Cicilline’s dream of using the arts as a catalyst for economic growth and urban revitalization.

During the 2002 mayoral campaign, Cicilline often cited the work of Richard Florida, an economist whose bestselling book The Rise of the Creative Class celebrates the role of artists, designers and other “creative professionals” in generating economic development. If Florida is correct, cities that attract artists and other creative types will have a competitive advantage over other, less innovative, urban areas. In effect, it's Wood’s job to make sure Providence comes out ahead in this creative horse race.

So how is Wood doing after nearly 10 months in the saddle? Clearly, the answer won't come tonight. By the time the band is packed up and ready to leave, it’s nearly 1:30 am, not the best time to be discussing the fine points of city arts policy. Besides, Wood has an early meeting tomorrow and wants to get home sooner rather than later.

From Parks to City Hall

Instead, we agree to meet the next day in Wood’s office in City Hall. It’s there, in a first-floor space that's more walk-in closet than executive suite, that Wood, deputy director Lynne McCormack and a small group of interns are mapping out the city’s artistic future. Unfortunately, McCormack, a holdover from the Parks Department’s Office of Cultural Affairs, is out when I arrive. That’s a shame, because the cultural-affairs office and longtime director Bob Rizzo helped launch many of the city’s best-known arts events, including WaterFire and the Convergence arts festival.

Now, with the exception of WaterFire, most of the city’s cultural activities have been shifted to the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism. Rizzo, meanwhile, retired last year. Wood, 35, is seated at his desk at the back of the office. As usual, he’s conservatively dressed in a tie, dress shirt and dark business suit. All of which makes his most noticeable feature – a head as smooth and hairless as a baby’s bottom – even more incongruous. “It’s actually a lot easier this way,” he says of his clean-shaven pate. “It dries quicker and when I go into a meeting at the end of a day, I don’t have to duck into the bathroom to see how it looks. It’s great.”

Asked what he’s working on, Wood reels off a long list of summer arts activities, including the city's annual summer concert series at Waterplace Park, a downtown street-art festival and performances at city parks. “We’re especially focused on trying to get more arts programming into the neighborhoods,” he says. “For a long time, the focus has mostly been on downtown. That's not a bad thing, especially when you’re trying to market the city to outsiders. But there has to be balance.”

Wood says the department is also trying to establish partnerships with city arts groups such as AS220 and the Black Rep. “Basically, the idea is that it’s better to pool your resources than to do everything yourself,” he says. “If someone comes to us with an interesting proposal, we might give them some money up front, then put them in contact with other funding sources. Ultimately, both the city and the sponsoring organization benefit if the project gets done.”

Nurturer of initiative

One of the first such partnerships led to last month’s Youth First International Arts Festival. The event, which Wood describes as “a huge success,” was organized by FirstWorks, a new youth-oriented arts group that sprang from the remains of First Night Providence.

“In that case, we were able to do a couple of things,” Wood says. “On the one hand, we helped FirstWorks raise money for a terrific, family-friendly event. On the other hand, the fact that the event came off so well gives FirstWorks more credibility with other things it wants to do.”

Among those “other things” is a revived version of the city's annual First Night celebration, which was canceled last year because of funding problems. Similarly, Wood hopes to bring back the Convergence arts festival, which also experienced money problems last year. “We're going to do something this fall,” he says of Convergence. “At the moment, I'm not sure what it's going to be. But the city will have a fall arts festival, if not on a yearly basis, then maybe as a biennial event.”

On the tourism front, Wood cites several initiatives. One is a closer working relationship with the Tourism Council and the Convention & Visitors Bureau, especially in marketing the city's arts and cultural attractions. Also in the works are plans for a new Web site with up-to-the-minute arts information and a two-year advertising campaign in Rhode Island Monthly and other publications.

“Basically, the city needs to get smarter about marketing itself,” Wood says. “Granted, everybody knows about RISD and Trinity Rep and WaterFire. But they also need to know about the smaller stuff – the Perishables, the Black Reps, the AS220 galleries. That's where a lot of the creativity is.” In particular, Wood cites the example of San Diego, which began an aggressive arts-marketing campaign in the early 1990s.

“Now attendance at arts and cultural venues is bigger than the attendance at the San Diego Zoo,” he says.

Master of constituent languages

In conversation, Wood toggles easily between friendly banter and wonkish policy-speak, at times sounding like the hip musician who jams on Thursday nights and at others like a city official pushing a pet agenda. It's a talent that should come in handy in his new job, where being able to speak to very different constituencies is a must.

In fact, Wood comes by his social skills naturally. A native of New York state (he was born in Schenectady), Wood grew up in a blue-collar family in which both parents worked – his father as a policeman, his mother as a parts dealer for National Cash Register. Later, he earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the state university at Albany, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He also has a master's degree in urban development from Clark University.

In 1993, Wood moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a coalition of environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Federation and the Endangered Species Defense Fund. Among his duties: fund raising and lobbying (unsuccessfully) for the Kyoto Climate Treaty. By 1997, Wood and his British-born wife, Karina, had had enough of the Washington rat race. But where to go?

“We knew we wanted to live in the Northeast, but otherwise we really didn't have a place in mind,” Wood recalls. “So we started making a list that rated cities on things like on cost, livability, culture and so on. When we looked at the results, Providence was the obvious choice.”

Before taking on the arts-tourism job last November, Wood worked for Cornish Associates, the development company headed by Arnold “Buff” Chace. He also worked on Cicilline's 2002 mayoral campaign.
Asked how he gets along with the mayor, Wood says the two have a good working relationship – with the emphasis on “working.” “Actually, we don't see a lot of each other socially,” he says. “He’s busy. I'm busy. Our staffs are busy. Basically, when we get together, all we do is talk business.”

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