Iona Dobbins was a vital force in the Rhode Island arts community, a bright sun that enabled all the arts to grow and flourish throughout the state. It was her deep belief that the arts are an essential part of everyday life. Her work, especially with emerging artists, helped Rhode Island enjoy an artistic Renaissance.
Throughout her decades of work in the arts, Iona was a catalyst for change. Where there was a need she moved to fill the void.
She brought creative opportunities to the disabled; she brought the business and arts communities together; and she founded enormously successful events that benefitted the state.
The arts and arts activities are the soul of the State. We (RISCA) specialize in raising consciousness levels and awakening people to the art forms that surround us.Iona Dobbins, Former Director, Rhode Island State Council on the Arts
In 1984, Iona Dobbins became the new director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA). She proved to be a tenacious advocate and champion for the arts in the State House, the legislature, and the community.
In 1987, Iona expanded the funding and accomplishments of RISCA to develop the One Percent for Art Program. Due to her efforts, the legislature passed a law that directed 1% of any public building budget for the arts.
Under Iona, RISCA greatly expanded the types of projects that were funded—programs and projects at arts organizations, libraries, community centers, schools, and human service agencies in support of the arts.
She specifically targeted individual grants to artists, partnerships between agencies and arts groups, and measures to serve artists and arts groups of all sizes.
Full of energy and dedication, Iona Dobbins fiercely supported all the arts—music, theatre, dance, and visual arts through a series of pioneering and inclusive programs.
Iona developed the Expansion Arts Program, an innovative project involving Black, Asian, Cape Verdean, and Indigenous artists and arts groups. This expanded program continues to the present day.
She worked with Hmong artists and musicians to train and maintain their cultural traditions.
Iona also funded art classes for Heatherwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Newport. One resident said, “We do things I don’t think any of us realized we had the talent to do.”
In 1985, Iona Dobbins started Rhode Island’s First Night, a New Year’s Eve Family Centered Celebration of the Arts. Ultimately it grew to more than 220 performances for an audience of 40,000 men, women, and children.
In 1989, Iona founded Business Volunteers for the Arts, an affiliate of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.
The Project Discovery program brought 50 high school students behind the scenes with Trinity Rep’s production of Macbeth.
In 1991, Arts Talk, a program concentrating on vocational education, brought together schools, arts organizations, and RISCA. Attendance by students has increased by 50 percent.
In 1993, Cop Art, an exhibit at Providence City Hall, highlighted painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography by Providence Police officer
Viola Davis (witness)
Oscar, Tony, and Emmy winning actress Viola Davis described Iona Dobbins’ impact in her 2022 autobiography, Finding Me:
When I graduated from Rhode Island College, a voice somewhere far in the recesses of my psyche, which was always true, honest, and in hindsight . . . served me perfectly, steered me to apply to a six-week summer program at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City. I got accepted after the URTAViola Davis
Audition in New York.
I got a full-tuition grant to the six-week program, but I needed money to live in New York City for those six weeks. A great woman ran the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts at the time, Iona Dobbins. She
was dedicated to artists and the arts. . . . She listened to my sob story, gave me a napkin, and said ‘I’m going to get you the money.’ And she did. She got me a $1,200 grant.
Stephen Zeitz (witness)
Iona Dobbins was a lively Program Committee Chair at Redwood Library, where she helped develop a US Postage stamp to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Library. Library Director Stephen Zeitz said,
“After the practice of the Japanese, the state of Rhode Island should designate Iona Dobbins a living, cultural treasure, and we should henceforth honor her as such.”
“For everyone from the most obscure young artists to those who had national and international reputations to Rhode Island’s grandest arts patrons, Iona Dobbins, who died July 13 at 82, was the queen of the art world for decades.”Editorial July 2012
In 1994, Iona Dobbins left the Rhode Island Council on the Arts but continued as Program Chair of the Providence Art Club. There in 2001, she organized the Centennial Arts & Crafts Exhibition to commemorate the 100 th anniversary of the historic Arts and Crafts Exhibition held at the Club in October 1901.
In 2003, she also helped organize the exhibit Design in Hand: The Evolution of Writing Instruments since 1784, one of her favorite projects.
One of Iona’s last projects was the restoration of the governors’ portraits at the Rhode Island State House. Most striking is the portrait of Civil War Governor William Sprague IV, who is pictured fully life-sized on his horse. The project included “Governors on Tour,” a Rhode Island tour of selected portraits that brought Rhode Island history to local communities.
Rhode Island lost Iona Dobbins ten years ago. Her legacy has not faded, as programs and ideas she generated live on. Artists she touched with her hard work also continue to thrive and contribute to our shared intellectual life.
On September 28, 2013, she was honored by a city-wide festival, IonaFest, a lively, creative celebration featuring a street procession and performances in Providence involving hundreds of artists and cultural organizations. Governor Lincoln Chafee announced this statewide festival in celebration of Iona’s civic legacy.
That year, Providence staged WaterFire, the annual city- scaled artistic installation known as the “crown jewel of the Providence Renaissance.” Barnaby Evans, WaterFire’s creator, celebrated Iona by launching a memorial canoe on Waterplace Park on the Woonasquatucket River. The lights of the burning braziers echoed the radiance and goodwill she spread throughout the state.