Share Your Ideas with WaterFire Providence


Our adaptive challenge

Because WaterFire has historically relied on corporate sponsorships, which have become more challenging to secure, we will develop a new revenue model that will engage a wider group of stakeholders and beneficiaries to participate in stewardship programs that preserve, protect and reinvest in WaterFire so that it can continue to create even greater economic and cultural impacts for the community. In its simplest form, our adaptive challenge is overcoming the attitude that WaterFire is a public good and mitigate the free rider effect where benefiting organizations leave the support to someone else. While it is unrealistic to think that we will get everyone to contribute, our goal is to significantly increase the participation rate.

Read more about the big thinking, deep questioning, and visions for the future in WaterFire Providence’s project.

We ask the crowd:

  1. What might we do or say to overcome the widespread misconception that WaterFire is funded and produced by the City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island?
  2. What do you see as the value of WaterFire to the State of Rhode Island, the City of Providence, local businesses and residents, out of state visitors, and your family?

How will your responses help us move forward in tackling our adaptive challenge?

Your responses and contributions will be integrated into our conceptualizing, framing and review of best practices during a process we are currently embarking on: a comprehensive review and rewrite of the WaterFire strategic plan, and experimentation with new affirmative engagement models for public art.

Share your responses with us (or “up-vote” ideas you like) in the comments section below.


WaterFire‘s mission is to inspire Providence and her visitors by revitalizing the urban experience, fostering community engagement and creatively transforming the city. Our art installation stretches on the rivers that run through Providence, and we collaborate with artists and community organizations in offering a free public art event for the entire community.

  • JimB

    The next step for WaterFire could be to tap into the calm, benevolent atmosphere – the un-pushy, generous, respectful mood it creates, and find a way for people to take it home with them. If it persisted for a day after a lighting, or more permanently in the vicinity of downtown, what a difference it would make in the quality of life in our city & state!

    • Hi Jim, we’d love to hear some of your ideas about how we might be able to do that. What would you take home from from WaterFire that would accomplish this for you? Thanks for sharing!

  • Diane

    WaterFire draws people to Providence and RI and clearly is a boost to the local businesses in the area. If local businesses benefiting from WaterFire donated just 1% of the evenings proceeds, it would help keep the fires burning and maybe they could burn more often. A win-win situation.

    • Hi Diane,
      We would love to have more of the local businesses who benefits and thrive from WaterFire activities to reinvest in the event and organization so that we can sustain ourselves for the long term. Each year WaterFire activity generates $70,000,000 in spending for local businesses and generates $5,000,000 in direct tax revenue for the State of RI. On top of that, the WaterFire ecosystem supports over 500 jobs in the community.
      Some businesses do invest in WaterFire through sponsorship, foundation grants and other philanthropic support; however, the percentage of businesses who do, relatively low.
      We’d love to hear some of your ideas about how we might more effectively engage businesses and get them to contribute a percentage of evening’s earnings.
      Thanks for sharing your ideas and please keep them coming.

  • Carol Murchie

    It’s an unwashed and not terribly original thought and I’ll put it out there anyway: what if Waterfire took a page out of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and paint (either in words, pictures, video) vividly for everyone what it might be like if Waterfire had never happened? Would the businesses in the neighborhood ever started, would people have ever realized their dreams if Waterfire wasn’t there to draw people to the city? And then put out there whether the imagined scenario is acceptable if Waterfire went away because the community didn’t support it and government can’t support it.

    • Carol, thanks for contributing to the conversation.

      We find this to be very tricky territory. We have discussed this type of strategy previously but it has always been in our DNA to use art to build community in a positive way.

      One of the challenges is framing the message in a positive way and that doesn’t come off as some kind of idle threat or overreaching. We would love your thoughts on this.

      • Carol Murchie

        Okay, let’s flip the analog a bit and explore calling together the local businesses as a community and engage them to tell each other stories: those who predate Waterfire share with those who have come into being during Waterfire and through this storytelling you may distill an organic solution these businesses will discover themselves about how they can contribute meaningfully in their own way. In other words, why are things better because of Waterfire’s activities and how they are a part of that. Storytelling may be a good way to get people to open up because the goal is not to prove anything but to share experience and eventually, with a good listener (or more, as part of the facilitating side) who can mentally track potential insights and give feedback and reaffirm the stories, guide the participants in closer collaboration with one another and pool resources to build up Waterfire. Another un-washed thought in a way, but if you can encourage participation, the story-telling could be a feature of a Waterfire event as it is very much an art form. Now I encourage more crowd members to play with this idea and see how it could work, what might need to be re-thought–none of us is as smart as all of us.

        • Thanks Carol, this is a great storytelling/case building idea! We have been using video more this season to capture visitor impressions of WaterFire and could do something similar with local businesses.

          Feel free to keep fresh perspectives and ideas coming!

          Thanks again!

  • Heather

    So many people use social media, which is actually how I learned about this contest. Use it to your advantage to overcome the misconceptions of funding. You can choose how transparent you are in terms of who is giving and how much. Perhaps at the donation jars or in the program a leaflet to show where their donor dollars are actually going.

    The greatest and most obvious value is the travel and tourism generate for the state and city. I feel WaterFire is the most stand out acheivement of the Providence Renaissaince.

    • Thanks Heather.

      This year we are taking a much more strategic approach to using our very valuable social media assets to tell the WaterFire story.

      While as a nonprofit we have always operated in a professional and transparent way, historically we have purposefully hidden from the public most of the effort and expense that goes into a WaterFire event. Similar what Disney accomplished in their parks, we want visitors to have a fully immersive art experience and not be distracted by what goes on behind the scenes or by how much everything costs. This has helped create and perpetuate the misconception that WaterFire is organized by an artist with a few volunteers, donated wood and borrowed boats. The reality is much different. WaterFire is a major public event that requires a considerable amount of human and financial resources and planning. We believe that we are more effectively telling that story with our social media and digital media tools.

      Thanks for your kind words about WaterFire. While there is no denying the major economic impact we create for the city and state, one of the real successful outcomes of the project is that it make Rhode Island residents proud of their city and state; the value of this can not be overstated in these economically challenging times. It’s tough to navigate an economy out of the doldrums, if residents don’t feel good about the place in which they live and work. WaterFire helps accomplish that.

      Thanks for the great comment, We’d love for you to continue this important conversation with us.

  • Randy

    WaterFire draws people from all over the world. It is one of the biggest Art & Cultural exhibits in Rhode Island. Prior to people attending a lighting, they go out to eat at local restaurants, shop at the nearby stores, park in a garage, and in some cases stay in the many fine hotels. The economic impact of WaterFire in Providence is very hard to measure. WaterFire has also changed the landscape and feel of downtown for the better. An educational video from state leadership during the event on TV monitors could benefit the misconception or a creative “take-away.”

    • Hi Randy, thanks for leading the conversation and for the good observations about WaterFire community contributions. Great idea about having our leaders help us tell the story. What kind of creative “take-away” could you envision?

      • Randy

        Peter, may I suggest a customized business card flash drive. It will allow WaterFire to promote their brand and store possible PSA’s from leaders in the community and related information for viewing on a computer. Here is a sample:

        • Randy, very interesting, thanks for the idea and for sharing the link. We’ll look into it.

  • Betsy

    1. Parlay the iconic Waterfire symbol onto a website state map, showing which businesses have contributed, when and how much. As others join, the map would light up more brilliantly. Of course, no business would be ID’d unless it has contributed.

    The intention would be demonstrate the involvement, champion those who have been supporters and encourage others to “add their light.” It would not be aimed at “shaming” those who have yet to donate. Any business that does contribute would also be sanctioned to receive the icon (a flickering bonfire) as addition to their own website.

    This is akin to the good work “sticker star” approach used by grade-school teachers!

    Any private donor who wishes would receive a special Waterfire donor sticker for their car or front window or refrigerator, and, of course, be listed on the donor website.

    2. Waterfire has become such a familiar fixture that many of us may now take it for granted, in the way we sometimes take for granted the people we love! I’d love to see an interesting timeline of Waterfire created online, with many dozen links along the way relating the stories of people whose lives have been changed by its presence. This would drive home its value which, for me, is its beauty and grace, for businesses, its tourist dollars, for the state, its image as a destination that champions creativity.

    • Betsy, this is a fun, positive way to celebrate all of the great support that WaterFire has received over the years! Thanks for sharing it!

      I love your timeline/storytelling idea as well. We tell the WaterFire story from diverse perspectives on the My Story section of our website(; however, it’s not as effectively and logically presented as you suggested above. I think we have a good start but it needs a little work.

      We’re also experimenting a lot more with video this year which is well suited to your storytelling idea.

      Thanks for the great ideas and kind words. If anything else pops into mind, please keep the comments coming!


  • Trey McIntyre

    If you feel that this is your most important message right now, then it needs to be your clear #1 message. You have a tremendous opportunity for personal investment as you carry that message forward. Your mission is so community connected that I think you could leverage your community’s love and pride in what you are doing for them to now take financial ownership of it. I think you can’t be too plain spoken in this message.

    Think WaterFire is funded by the City of Providence? Think again. It is funded by YOU. If you feel what we do is important to you and to this city, let’s stick together to make it possible and to grow.

    This should be a focused campaign and be the message of all of your communications during that campaign. Reading over some of the comments, I agree that educating on the financial impact of what you do is a needed argument for many people, but I tend to bet the larger focus on the emotional resonance of the experience your community has with you. I feel that this has the greater potential for long term engagement.

    • Trey, thanks for sharing this.

      We have many internal conversations about exactly this. WaterFire has grown to be a very popular public arts event that creates significant economic and cultural impacts. However, these impacts are more an unintended outcome of an artwork that uniquely resonates with people regardless of their race, nationality, gender, socioeconomic status, or any other demographic measure. WaterFire builds community through public art at a scale that causes these other significant outcomes.

      I really like your direct, positive messaging and feel it could work well with Laurie Seubert’s interesting idea below about several other “independent, Rhode Island icons.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and keep up the great dance and creative placemaking work with your Project!

  • Laurie Seubert

    My suggestion for addressing the funding misconception involves two iconic statues found in Providence: the Independent Man, and Roger Williams. I’d run a print/social media/TV campaign with photos of WaterFire and the two statues, with the question and answer underneath:

    “What do these three things have in common?”

    “That’s right! They’re INDEPENDENT. WaterFire Providence is independently produced and funded for the benefit of residents and visitors alike. Just as Roger Williams relied on divine Providence to found our great state, we rely on our great state to help us keep Providence divine.”

    I hope this feedback is useful! I have spent many happy evenings at WaterFire and would be thrilled to do so for as long as possible. Best of luck!

    • Laurie, this is a very interesting idea, true to the Rhode Island spirit! I love it!

      Thanks for coming to WaterFire and for your kind words here. If you have other ideas like this, please feel free to share! :)

  • arlenegoldbard

    Looking at the photos at your website made me want to see Waterfire’s work for myself: beautiful!

    Your traditional base of corporate sponsorship posits Waterfire as a p.r. opportunity. An alternate model would be to think of it in terms of social good. Let me sketch some examples.

    In England, the fireshow is a community arts tradition, spiraling out from traditional Guy Fawkes’ Day bonfires. In the sixties and seventies, community-based artists started redeploying the model for social protest. For example, they’d organize a community to come to a workshop, build paper images of things they wanted to change, ritually construct a bonfire, and burn them. A lot of this work was inspired by the theater group Welfare State. If you haven’t seen their book Engineers of The Imagination, you can find used copies. I recommend it.

    Or, I worked with the maker of a film about the Mexican tradition of days of the dead, honoring ancestors. One funding idea was asking people to contribute in honor of their loved ones, with the dedications ending the credits. The ceremony of lighting the braziers made me wonder if finding individual or group “investors” to support this couldn’t be tied to the ritual act of honoring those who’d come before. An individual could invest in a particular brazier (in effect, “buy a share”) and the name of the person honored could be inscribed. Organizations could do likewise for lightings on special commemoration days such as holidays where ancestors are invoked.

    The fact that there are Riverkeepers and other environmental groups attached to many Eastern Seaboard rivers also suggests pairing your work with those who want to preserve and protect waterways. For instance: a joint funding campaign leading to a special-focus performance focused on the value of waterways, where the proceeds are split and each group broadens its constituency by accessing friends of the other.

    I dislike the concept “free rider” being used here. It originated to describe people who benefit from public goods without paying a share. The classic case is when only some workers pay union dues, but everyone who works at the shop gets the benefits. But just about everyone (except the richest) pays proportionately for top-level public goods (e.g., environmental protect, public health, roads and bridges). Your use of this term implies that if if corporations pay the costs, then nearly everyone who attends is a free rider. But those corporations are supporting your work as part of their public relations, so just by publicly acknowledging corporate donors, audience members pay their dues in the expected currency, which is garnering goodwill and appreciation for the donors. I think you’re equating a simple correlation (i.e., people assume this is publicly funded) for a cause (therefore they get a free ride). I would rethink that, as it doesn’t seem to advance your argument.

  • arlenegoldbard

    I posted yesterday, but it seems to have disappeared. I’ll repost (assuming it was a glitch and not a deletion). The gist:

    Your work is beautiful. I wish I could see it for myself. Four ideas come to mind, three about linking Waterfire to other things people care about, and one about language and concepts.

    I thought of the former British community arts group, Welfare State (read their book Engineers of The Imagination). They led in repurposing Guy Fawkes’ bonfires for fireshows focusing on social action (e.g., community members take part in building paper effigies of things they want to change, and they are burned in a ritual bonfire).

    I thought of a filmmaker I’d helped with a film on the Mexican Days of the Dead. One funding idea was to ask individual donors to make contributions in honor of departed relatives. The ritual of lighting braziers could be dedicated to these individuals (with names inscribed). Or the idea could be taken to a higher level with lighting dedicated to key cultural commemorations invoking ancestors, with funding from associated groups.

    I thought of the growing number of Riverkeepers in the east, and wondered about a joint fundraising program with a group dedicated to preserving waterways: calling attention to each others’ issues, reaching a far larger group of potential donors. If it worked, it could become an annual feature of awareness- and fundraising.

    All of these are in contrast to corporate funding, where p.r. drives (and community contributions increasingly are deprioritized in favor of shareholder and executive profits). All of these involve making common cause with other groups and communities.

    Finally, I suggest not using the term “free rider” as you have. In its original sense, it applies to people like workers who don’t pay union dues but get union benefits. But you’re saying the funding used to come from corporations: does that make everyone else a free rider? I don’t think so. Corporate donors were paying for audience visibility and goodwill, a clear quid pro quo. Everyone was contributing their share, just in different currencies (i.e, money or attention/gratitude). To suggest that those who didn’t give money were free riders is to distort the facts.

  • Wow! Thanks for all of the great ideas below! We’re already working on integrating some of them into our programs. You’ve given us great food for thought! Please keep them coming! Thanks! :)

  • arlenegoldbard

    Thanks for a thoughtful and informative response, Peter. A quick reply this morning, as I’m running off to a meeting, but I’d be glad to go further if you like. I see that significant donations would be more to the point than individual “retail” fundraising as in”Starry Starry Night,” and of course that makes sense. (Though I do think it’s worth exploring giving individuals a reason to make their mark beyond taking part in an art installation: the Days of the Dead idea annexed ancestral memory and honor as a theme, which is a pretty potent connector. What could yours be?)

    I absolutely understand your point about the restaurants and hotels. You may already have tried what I’m about to suggest, as it is fundraising 101, which is to get the givers to ask. If there’s a hospitality or restaurateurs’ association, the goal would be finding a small group of champions among your givers to advocate with the rest. A friend who owns restaurants in another town did a benefit for flood relief in his hometown: restaurants auctioned off dinners, and because the event was boosted by the city’s top foodies, chefs and owners also outbid each other to be treated to special dinners at their colleagues’ places (and get noticed within the field). But there are all the obvious types of promotion too: donating a portion of one or two nights’ proceeds, for instance. Even finding those influential businesspeople to lobby for a small dedicated transient occupancy tax, since the connection is so clear.

    Perhaps the bar isn’t hugely high because it all really depends on finding that champion who gives and has access. But as I say, you may already have tried this and just not found that person.

    Sending all good wishes for luck!

    • Arlene, thanks for continuing the conversation!

      We totally agree that we want to engage visitors in ways than more than just helping us create the art. We try to do this with both Starry, Starry Night and Luminaria. Here’s a link to the page on our website that explains these activities more fully. We’d love your feedback on our messaging on this page.

      We have also done what you suggest regarding getting givers to ask in the hospitality industry. It all comes down to who is in a position of influence in the industry association and what’s their relationship to WaterFire. We’ve had a few amazing advocates in leadership positions in the past but recently we haven’t been able to secure this type of support. Everyone is fighting their own battles with limited resources and energy. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ve given up. Like most nonprofit organizations, we continuously iterate! In fact, we’re working on pursuing Carol Murchie’s idea of engaging the business community to tell their own stories.

      One of our hoped for outcomes from participating in this ArtsFwd program is to raise awareness of our challenges and hopefully get a few “influential businesspeople to lobby for a small dedicated transient occupancy tax” as you recommended above. We love this idea but know it will be a true adaptive challenge to meet it!

      Thank you so much for continuing the conversation. You’ve given us a lot of great food for thought and we welcome even more since we are hungry for solving this adaptive challenge. :)

  • Ashley

    If you had small businesses like cupcakerys and flower shops buy booths along the route of water fire they would get customers and you would get funds from their purchasing of a space.

    • Thanks Ashley! We do have food vendors and this year we are experimenting with an art festival on the day and evening of WaterFire in a separate but adjacent area of art installation. This does bring us some revenue; however, we are always trying to balance this against making the event too commercial. I know it sounds like we want to have our “cupcake” and eat it too!

      Have you experienced WaterFire in person? What did you feel about any commercial aspects of the event? What’s your favorite thing about attending WaterFire? Thanks for contributing to this important conversation!

  • In response to #1 – A simple disclaimer stating the above – over and over and over.

    • Hi Jessan!

      Thanks for contributing these great ideas.

      We haven’t hit the messaging sweet spot yet so all that means is that we keep iterating and trying. People learn about WaterFire in so many different ways from word of mouth to magazine articles to just stumbling upon it during a trip to Providence. We need to develop a simple, consistent message that reaches our guests through a variety of channels.

      I love your idea of a People’s WaterFire. We’ve tossed around the idea of trying to use Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund a WaterFire but that would be started and organized by us. I think your idea is much more grassroots. Not sure exactly what we could do spark this so I’m very interested in your thoughts about what next steps would be and what role WaterFire would take.

      Thanks for sharing some really great ideas. Let’s keep the conversation going and figure out how the People WaterFire could become a reality.