No one else [was] bothering to have people come together and sit around with each other.
Christina Bevilacqua, director of programs and public engagement at the Providence Athenaeum, was recently awarded the Tom Roberts Prize for Creative Achievement in the Humanities by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. The prize, which awards individuals with innovative approaches to traditional humanities, recognized the Athenaeum’s salon series created by Bevilacqua in 2006. The salons feature weekly conversations on topics ranging from history, art and politics to architecture, education and health care.
PBN: Would you say that these salons have provided audiences with a fresh perspective on the city and its history?
BEVILACQUA: What we try to do is get people out of things they’re used to doing. We [give] some of the newer or slightly under-the-radar organizations/individuals a chance to share what’s coming up. [The salon] audience comes regularly; it’s a group that likes to know what’s going on and tell other people what’s going on. People are hungry for engagement with other people in real time. That [sic] two hours [in a salon] models a level of engagement that goes beyond that night and gives people opportunities to make those connections.
PBN: When you created the salon series, were you trying to be innovative or was that something that happened on its own?
BEVILACQUA: I wanted something that people would feel was an Atheneum experience. I had just seen “Jewish Women and Their Salons” [an exhibition] in New York, so I was thinking a lot about that and there were a lot of salons in the 19th century on Benefit Street. It [became] something that was so old-fashioned and archaic that it was now new again. [At that time] people were looking for more ways to integrate with technology. No one else [was] bothering to have people come together and sit around with each other. Somewhere in our modern moment there’s some need or desire that this is meeting.
PBN: Are there any specific traits or criteria you look for when scheduling salon speakers? How does that process work?
BEVILACQUA: I spend a lot of the summer calling up people I know who are scheduling events happening next year. I go to a lot of new stuff, like performances and talks. I read a lot. I look for something that is interesting and might benefit from having an audience as kind of a conversation about what it is or something that might not get to a larger audience, but will benefit from one. Part of it is finding connections across genres [and bringing] together a lot of people that wouldn’t necessarily encounter each other. •
The salon series at Providence Athenaeum meets weekly from 5 to 7 p.m. on Fridays beginning Sept. 27. For more information about Athenaeum programs, click HERE.