WaterFire’s flame is flickering

At a time when it is more popular than ever, with cities across the nation and indeed the globe seeking to host it, WaterFire is struggling to stay alive in Providence. More

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WaterFire’s flame is flickering

COURTESY WATERFIRE/BARNABY EVANS ETERNAL FLAME? A WaterFire event at Brush Creek parkway in Kansas City, Mo., in 2007. The popular Rhode Island event has grown past state borders, but it now has a $200,000 deficit.
Posted 11/7/11

At a time when it is more popular than ever, with cities across the nation and indeed the globe seeking to host it, WaterFire is struggling to stay alive in Providence.

The event, which draws literally a million people downtown every year, faces a cumulative deficit of approximately $200,000 incurred in 2010 and 2011, according to Barnaby Evans, founder and executive artistic director, with no apparent way to raise the income needed, not only to cover the deficit, but also to pay for future installations.

“We cannot survive another year with these deficits,” Evans said. “We are questioning whether we will be here next year.”

He spoke to Providence Business News in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview about the financial struggles that could mean, in a worst-case scenario, the end of WaterFire or its relocation to another city.

Neither alternative satisfies Evans, who is determined to keep the fires burning here in Providence. “We are such a symbol of the Providence renaissance.”

His 26-member, full-time staff is stretched thin. A team of 400 active volunteers has become crucial to its continuance.

WaterFire resources are limited, with little prospect for generating more revenue beyond the generosity of corporate sponsors and availability of foundation grants.

Funds squirreled away for eventual purchase of a building, so all operations would be under one roof, were spent to cover expenses left outstanding by the 2010 and 2011 fiscal shortfalls. Five separate locations in the city now house bits and pieces of WaterFire, including 21 trucks, 100 braziers, 70 stereo speakers and 23 boats, with an annual rent of $52,000 – about one-third the market rate because landlords want to help, Evans said.

The irony is that WaterFire, as it struggles to survive in its hometown, is enjoying growing popularity elsewhere.

WaterFire has been held in Singapore, with installations planned in Venice and Rome in Italy. In the United States, WaterFire five years ago became an annual attraction in Kansas City, Mo. Fires have been lit in Columbus, Ohio, and Tacoma, Wash. Houston and Chicago have called Evans, looking to have their own WaterFires. Organizers cannot spend any Providence-intended donations in other locations, Evans noted, so other places cover their own expenses, including construction of braziers and boats.

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