I never interviewed Founding Director Bert Crenca directly about AS220, so what follows is my recollection of a conversation we had, along with a description of the organization’s structure. This is the final segment of what has been weekly series of interviews and essays about artist run spaces in Providence, each of which I’ve posted here on BadatSports. My particular interest in Providence — the purpose of my residency — was to study via conversation the relationship between the city’s politics, it’s social/historical geography and the respondent culture of artist community and action. You can access my collection of writing on the subject by going here.
I visited AS220 for the month of July as an artist-in-residence. During my stay, I lived on the third floor of the Empire Street building (above), the first in a series of three buildings that AS220 owns. With each building positioned less than a five minute walk away from one another, AS220 takes up 100,000 square feet of downtown Providence real estate. Every space represents a project of historic restoration and, with its mixed use status, contains 3 restaurants, 3 bars, a locksmith, a photo lab, a robot lab, a print shop, a youth program (with every opportunity you could imagine from a separate dark room to a recording studio), 4 galleries, a performance space and live/work studios for artists. The operation is massive. It sustains an operating budget of 2.6 million dollars a year, with a staff of 50 employees. To begin to conceive how a non-profit arts organization can maintain such a privileged place in a downtown commercial hub is to begin to understand how AS220 has influenced not just the cultural climate of Providence but also the city’s vision of itself as an artistic center.
AS220 is not simply an art space. It espouses a philosophical agenda as well. Every member of the administrative staff earns the same salary and health insurance; the minute you are hired for an administrative position, you get the same income as Founding Director, Bert Crenca, who’s been at the helm of this ship for the last 25 years. If you live in one of the artist residency studios, you are expected to volunteer up to 5 hours of your time every week. Volunteering offsets your rent while ensuring everyone share in the responsibility of the space. AS220 is also doggedly unjuried and uncensored. It is a platform for work to be exhibited, not a space with a pre-determined aesthetic vision. Anyone can show here. If you are from Rhode Island you sign your name on a list and so long as you are willing to wait (at this stage the wait is three years long), you get to share your work with a public. The mixed-use aspect of the organization’s structure is also part of its larger agenda: Crenca wanted to create an art space in a city that, 25 years ago, had more or less given up on itself.
AS220’s origin story is contextualized by what was then a particularly bleak post-industrial setting. It has made a point to champion ART — both as a vehicle for individual expression and as a means to develop a visible local community (via the shared experience of artistic production) — in order to transform its depressed surroundings into a viable social opportunity for youths and old folks and everyone in between. To accomplish that goal, it was in everyone’s best interest to create a space that facilitated community and discourse, not criticality. It had to promote an open place of nourishment, one that did not base its success on the whims of commercial art markets belonging to less intimate cities far afield. In other words, the focus had to be on a local level if it was ever going to improve local conditions. Of course the culture has a number of success stories: Shephard Fairy, for instance, and the constituents of Fort Thunder represent members of the Providence community who have had a tremendous impact on a national contemporary art dialogue. Yet also, there is a very concentrated local aesthetic, an often messy, sometimes Bacchic and excitedly peculiar scene. From my glancing view this seemed to manifest in costume parties, printed matter, a vested interest in education on all levels and the deep pleasure in idiosyncratic DIY culture, wherein high and low art (if those distinctions still exist) mix around in a big, impossible-to-parse soup of personality.
One evening in July, I happened to sit at the same table as Bert Crenca outside the AS220 restaurant. He told me he’d had to defend his non-juried agenda over and over again to board members. “They want to know how we ensure quality,” he said. He grinned, obviously confident in his forthcoming punchline. “I told them ‘We don’t know. Nobody knows. But at least we ensure the possibility of quality.’” It is that confidence which is so contagious. He is a warm man and I had the distinct impression that he was used to talking to a wide of range of people. He is totally game for any kind of discourse. He can swear like a sailor, indulging dirty jokes as though to see where they land, and seeks out the different interests or capacities, whether philosophical, practical or biographical, in a conversation. Almost every night he was out, I saw him talk to different people at the space, people eating food or drinking or hanging out. Regardless the subject he was always engaged. No doubt it takes that kind of person to build a project from the ground up: someone affable, flexible and sure with conviction.
Just as he is proud of his artistic practice, Crenca is proud of his working class roots. Somehow the marriage of those personal interests have lead to his path as an arts administrator. The project began in 1985 when Crenca received a terrible review about his own work. As is the case with many DIY spaces, he responded through a positive action. He turned around and wrote a manifesto with peers Martha Dempster and Steven Emma. “We realize that no artist can survive and grow without the support of both his peers and the public regardless of the artist’s unyielding belief in himself,” they said. “We challenge the pervasive notion that complete, unbridled, uncensored freedom produces mediocrity and that excellence rises out of repression. It does not!,” and then finally, “Art has been removed from being an integral part of our society and has been relegated to mere processes which had lead to the production of dry, academic, pedantic, superficial, mechanical, and mass produced works of art devoid of all integrity, honesty, and meaning and has stripped art of its physical, psychological, moral, and spiritual impact necessary for the thriving and indeed the very survival of human culture. Art must be allowed to flourish unhampered because art is one of the last areas of culture where man defines his spiritual nature.”
There is much more to the manifesto, but the vigor and vim underlying its message is clear — something still palpable in the various constituents of AS200 today. As an example, I remember meeting two floor mates for the first time in the kitchen. I think I was nervous and feeling like the new kid, I tried to make a joke with more swagger than I possessed at the time. “Oh!” I said, instead of introducing myself. “So this is where the cool kids hangout.” Both joking and earnest, one of them replied, “There isn’t anyone of us who is cool here, everyone is just good.” In other words, open acceptance is in the water. And, indeed, everyone living at the space is creative. Many of them teach classes at the youth program one floor below. It’s a utopic vision: here you can still be a painter. You can inhabit a structured bohemia, one still complimentary to capitalism. It is sustainable. It is user-friendly. I realized upon arrival that had I moved here after college, I would have embarked on an entirely different artistic experience. (Isn’t it amazing when you discover the possibility of a parallel life?) Instead I moved to Chicago and had to answer questions about my own artistic approach: Why was I painting from photographs? What about my figure painting was different from or contributing to the canon of figure painting? And, even further: Why was I painting at all? Wasn’t painting dead? How did my own practice recover Painting’s Drowned and Beautiful Body from the river and bathe its corpse uniquely? (I’m thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story, The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World). Keep in mind, I feel especially grateful for the path I’ve come down thus far. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but gazing into the ecoculture of Providence, I stumbled upon the important realization that my artistic path thus far was not the only path. (It sounds obvious to say, but here : think about your own aesthetic positions and judgements, imagine conceiving another, auxiliary framework through which to engage with the world. Imagine, then, its ensuring consequence, some things difficult in the old regime will occur more easily, just as other things once simple encounter difficulty). Occupying the possibility of these two realities at once is like being a polyglot, to discover the shortcomings in one language while simultaneously appreciating its tremendously varied and peculiar (by contrast) vocabulary that opens up new worlds. For instance, I’ve heard the Inuit language has a huge index of nouns fitted to depict thousands upon thousands of kinds of snow.
From its original manifesto, AS220 was born with an $800 check that paid the first months rent of a shared loft apartment. 2nd floor space above the Rocket, a local nightclub on Richmond Street. AS220 eventually took over the third (top) floor, which became studio space). Originally it was an illegal, unheated, living space but because the city needed something and because Bert possesses a convincing charisma, he was able to solicit the ever infamous mayor “Buddy” Cianci’s help. “Cianci understood the potential of art and entertainment so he was open to suggestions.” Which is how Crenca secured AS220’s first space on Empire Street — a 22,000 sq foot property which, at the time was in great disrepair, surrounded by prostitution and drugs to such an extent that most locals avoided Empire Street altogether. Via whole sweat equity, constant fundraising and a countless number of events, AS220 provided a visible, above ground activity. Interestingly enough, a number of the original businesses that leased the space before AS220 bought the building remain. Crenca took them on as tenants and, in some cases, even helped rehab the business so that original tenants (for instance a locksmith, a barber shop and a gay bar) could move back in and carry on with updated working conditions.
It’s important to remember that projects like this aren’t simply acts of social service, selflessness or charity. They are necessarily self-serving and there is a way in which each member of the AS220 crew is committed to the project because of how it fulfills (and I’m sure sometimes frustrates) their own ideals. Crenca will say he had to “create a place for his own survival,” it just happens that identifying that need applied to a population larger than himself; his survival is contingent on the community he inhabits. As part of that testament, a handful of AS220 members put together a AS220StinkTank_Compost, How to Keep the Arts from Dying of Old Age in 2004, ”You can grow things in a petri dish,” they write, “but they need special care, and may not survive on their own. If you want to find something healthy, lively and strong, don’t build a lab to grow it in; grow it in the dirt you make from your compost.”
There seems to be a correspondence between the aforementioned dirt and a bed of pessimism. Despite the rampant idealism that oozes out of AS220, neither Bert nor anyone I met there is a Pollyanna. The Youth Program I mentioned is born from bleak prospects for young people and the more general difficulty of time’s advance (how to keep AS220 forever renewed?). Apprehending a flanking darkness — perhaps even a larger sense of mortality — led the organization to establish a program for youth. Each kid enrolled (mostly teenagers from what I could see, they lolled about the stairwells from time to time, sometimes playing guitars, sometimes flirting with one another, sometimes grumpy and morose) makes a portfolio in whatever field they are interested in. They can use it towards job or college or professional applications. But as I said, this program is not charitable. It is essential. A frank realism regularly took hold most of my conversations over the summer and with Crenca in particular, I found we quickly went down rather dark passages — discussing the bleak potential of an abstract future that entertained global warming and economic crises. “Maybe that’s what humanity is actually best at,” he said. “Destroying itself.”
“It’s interesting to me that you would sound so resigned to the end of the world, but then at the same time you’re putting all of your effort into this very idealistic organization,” I said.
“You gotta do something,” he shrugged. “You might as well.”
“Yes, but you’re not just doing something, you’re specifically invested in the idea of a future because of the Youth Program,” I said. “I’ll be honest, I feel like obviously everything works well here, but I think that program is like the heart of this place. Because the kids aren’t just taking classes, their education here is totally integrated into the whole organization. They are kind of brought up in community that reinforces and values all the stuff they learn, regardless of whether or not it’s important in any other part of their lives. Here they’re around a host of people already converted to the idea of art and expression.”
“That’s right,” Bert nodded. “That’s it, exactly. That’s our insurance policy — the youth program. I mean, I’m getting old. Maybe I don’t know what good art is. I might have lost touch a long time ago, but they’re the ones that can carry this on. And you know it comes from my own background, I was a troubled kid. I had nowhere to go. We particularly want to serve people who don’t have opportunities, and you know we’ve got 150 kids engaged a week. The youth program is our insurance policy.” He cleared his throat. “As long as the base continues to swell, contrary to elitist notions around art.”
“Well I have to imagine too, I mean even just me in my life, I think it’s really hard to get outside of standard ideas of what one needs to feel OK—”
“Sure, sure. It’s absurd. All that garbage on TV it really just makes you feel lousy. It’s impossible to find places where you just feel good for being who you are. That’s what I’m trying to do here, with these kids, with everyone. You got to build something that’s independent of all that other stuff.”
“But then that’s the thing, that’s like this big irony,” I shook my head and probably guffed a little. “I mean it’s like culture is kind of just fucked, and you know that, but then here you are trying to promote culture. To facilitate it.”
“You have to. It’s not fucked here.”
There are many things to say about the Dirt Palace — an impossible many. It started in 2000 as an artist-run performance space in Olneyville, the same neighborhood that used Fort Thunder used to be in. The building is old. It used to have many more floors (as you can see from the photo above: at this time, the building only has two). I heard it was once a pharmacy and once a library. I’ve also heard it was a nunnery, but I don’t know that I believe that story. Before founders Pippi Zornoza and Xander Marro moved in, it had been abandoned. Since purchasing the building they have hosted countless events and residents: artist live upstairs and it works like a kind of collective. They curate their storefront window, occasionally make their own mead and boast a S.S.C.O.W.L. library (Shivering Shelves Collection of Weirdness Library).”S.S.C.O.W.L. houses an extensive collection of rare and independently published comics and zines as well as antique, arcane and unusual books, periodicals and videos on a wide variety of subjects.” The library is open to the public on days when guest librarians have curated the collection around a particular theme.
When I visited the Dirt Palace this summer, it reminded me of a Wes Anderson set. Pippi was creating a stone mosaic for the building’s exterior in their main ballroom on the first floor. A few others worked on other projects: the ballroom I stood in was a communal studio. Adjacent stood the band room, complete with a drum set, guitars and recording equipment. Nearby was a dark room for burning screens, a cartoon studio with hand-me-down equipment procured from RISD and a separate printing studio with a wash tub. Everywhere I looked I saw original prints.
Xander led me up the widest flight of wooden stairs I think I’ve ever seen. The banister was thick and, like the stairs, stained dark. I remember the wallpaper was a deep rose, printed in a Victorian pattern. Did I mention the height of the ceilings? The ceilings were high, everywhere: like 12 feet at least. The whole place felt like an old and giant East Coast house, a little rickety and creaky and very likely full of ghosts. The library was on the second floor, as were the bedrooms: seven separate rooms, all built out with lofts. There was a bathroom on one end of the hall and, on the other, a lovely kitchen with a living room. The kitchen was bright and full of light. Plants and knick knacks were everywhere. The wall behind the stove had images from vintage cookbooks wheat pasted all over it like a homemade wallpaper. There were two fridges to accommodate the various residents and tons of plants and a breeze blew threw the house so that, despite the day’s heat, I felt pretty cool. And certainly, totally bowled over by the imagination that just seemed to leak out of the walls.
How does a space like this come to be? How do a couple of twenty-year olds go about buying a building? What is like to interface with the politics of one’s own environment? This is what I’d come to ask; it was why we were in their kitchen and why we sat down. Xander and Pippi were immediately affable; it was obvious they had invested years not only in a physical space, but also into their friendship.
I’ve divided the following interview into four parts and will post it over the next four days. This first section I call, The Early Years.
Caroline Picard: I’m interested in how the Dirt Palace started.
Pippi Zornoza: When we first started the space Xander and I had both at different times lived in this building that had gone through a series of evictions of artists who were illegally living there. They would sort of fill up the spaces and after a certain amoung ot time the fire department would pay attention and all of these people would get evicted. It was also the same time that they were starting to look at the Eagle Square development, which is the building that Fort Thunder was in. There were alot of artist studios in that same building. I’m not sure how many people actually had spaces there, but it seemed like there were a lot. And so around that time I think we first started working on acquiring the Dirt Palace property; before Eagle Square became a development-
Xander Marro: There were people in suits walking around [Eagle Square] taking measurements but it wasn’t like their development plans were public; no one knew what was going to happen.
PZ: And Xander had a friend looking into opening up a bookstore, so she had been looking at spaces and was looking at the space that is a kitchen right now for the bookstore, and found out it was not that much more expensive to just rent the whole building. So she and Xander started talking about it, and I didn’t even know Xander at this time, but she had the idea of, “OK, so what if we got this space and it could be another collective space.” The landlord was sort of pitching the rent-to-own agreement, so it started from that—people just reaching a certain frustration level with other people being evicted over and over again. We wanted some sort of sustainability.
The bookstore idea fell out of the picture really quickly, and Xander approached me and some other people, and as we started getting a group together we asked what this could really be? Maybe we could actually buy this building. The model of AS220 was already there, so we thought what if there was this artist not-for-profit women-run studio? We were really young, I was 21 at the time, you know, and really idealistic. I had a lot of naive but positive energy, and we just sort of threw ourselves into the idea, almost in a cockamamie way. And now looking back and knowing the trajectory of course I still would have, but I definitely went into it, I would say more than Xander, pretty naively.
We had this idea of starting a not for profit, which we did. And that the NFP would own the building and there would be artist living spaces up here, and shared facilities downstairs. Definitely with the idea that the studios downstairs would be more open to the community. Within the first year it became really clear that there were different goals and motivations from different people in the group.
CP: How many people were involved?
PZ: There were six of us originally. And there sort of became a little bit of a faction of what the direction was going to be. We spent a lot of time forming the NFP and creating a board of directors and applying for a grant, and we had 18 months of the rent to own agreement. The landlord was a slumlord. He pretty much knew we would do some improvements to the building, thought we wouldn’t be able to buy it, and imagined he would reap the rewards after he evicted us, or keep us on as tenants until he could sell it later.
XM: We had the fear of him yanking it out from underneath us and I think that fear wasn’t irrational—I don’t think he was a nefarious person, but I do think he was in it for the money-
PZ: He was definitely in it for the money. And it also became clear at some point just- well there were two different conflicts of interest- we were just working on the space every moment that we weren’t working our day jobs. it was just what had to happen at the time, because there wasn’t really plumbing upstairs. We couldn’t wash dishes. I don’t think we even had a stove right away—people were sort of camping out in different areas of the building and we just wanted to get it to a livable place. I had just been evicted a few weeks before we started this project and I didn’t have a place to live, so we just sort of moved in and started working.
XM: I remember you were sleeping at the top of that stair because all these windows were boarded up and that was the only crack of light.
PZ: And I had just heard a bunch of rumors about this building being broken into all the time, and people squatting here
CP: Was this a sketchy neighborhood?
XM: I think socioeconomically it’s probably similar now, but the trajectory that drug use has taken over the past ten years, like there were more crackheads basically. There were more people who were just freaked out and whatever else that stuff does. I think that maybe the average income and whatever other factors people throw into a good or bad neighborhood, crime is probably the same—I never felt super unsafe, but I think there were just a lot more visible drug users.
PZ: And that was when I was here. I was sleeping in this entire abandoned building alone. I was irrationally scared, just cause there was no electricity up here—now when I think back on it I think that the doors all worked. But you know, being a woman in this building that people identified as being abandoned, sleeping here at night, it was sort of sketchy.
CP: Especially since you’re removed from usual domestic things.
PZ: Yeah, yeah. So it became clear to us A) that we were spending our own money. We needed drywall, so we would just go buy it and split it amongst the six of us. And it just wasn’t the proper model for a NFP. There was no real business structure except for that we split expenses.
XM: And that there was a board but they were really backseat.
PZ: Yeah really backseat, like people who were excited about the idea, and who had some sort of connection either through the city, but mostly just people who were idealistically supportive. Even maybe in a different echelon of professionalism, but not people who were gonna come home from working their day job and throw in a bunch of hours of work. It was more like, you ladies do the work and we’re the figureheads who are supporting you to provide legitimacy. So we just started realizing that the way we were running the project, even though we knew that we were working towards this NFP model where the structure would be different, what we were doing just wasn’t sustainable. Being a constant volunteer but also in the place where you lived. Even the idea that once things were comfortable there would be programming, it was the idea that you’d wake up, go downstairs, and work more. And we all wanted to be artists as well, so that balance of artist, art administrator, and not getting compensated, was all really blurry. And also just realizing that we were running out of time; if we were going to fundraise 40,000 dollars, we weren’t going to make it.
XM: We had to come up with a down payment, and mortgage, and financing if we were going to buy the building.
CP: And it sounds like the amount of construction that you had to do, if you got it professionally done, would have taken a year at least.
XM: And it would have doubled our mortgage. We just figured it all out to do it ourselves.
PZ: Yeah, scrapped things together- you know, like maybe we did some things illegal, maybe we didn’t-
XM: We tried to build up to code.
PZ: We did try to build up to code. I meant more being like, “Oh there’s this giant stack of 2×4’s that are twelve feet long outside of that Dominoes; they’ve been there for 6 months, maybe we should just go there in the morning and take them.”
XM: Oh yeah! I remember that.
CP: But still everything was so compressed. On top of the timeline you had to build the physical infrastructure , and organization, you were trying to raise money.
PZ: And also people didn’t have experience and at the time we operated by consensus. I like the idea of operating with a goal towards consensus, but for me through that experience I came up with the phrase tyranny through the minority, you know? If one person doesn’t like the idea, but everyone else thinks its good, it’s hard to move forward. I do think we strive here to agreon everything, and there’s sort of a give and take and compromise, but consensus was a hard way to operate.
CP: How the group was splitting?
PZ: Oh yeah the group. Oh and the other thing was that the board of directors has to be comprised of a certain amount of outside people. We couldn’t all just beon the board. Maybe one of us could, but at any point the board could decide that people were only allowed to live here for 2 years: We realized that we had no control over our home.
I think we decided that we had put so much time and engery into this- what was it going to amount to in the end? Really nothing. And realizing that we had no control over it, it just felt sort of wrong. There were so many conflicts of interest and there became a split in the group where some people really wanted the NFP to exist, and maybe change the thing so no one lived here, and there were other people who I think had been more present for a lot of the work who thought it made more sense to privately buy the building but still do what we’re planning on doing, but not to run it as a NFP.
XM: In a lot of ways it had to do with mentorism—people who had experience in this community—AS220 was the real first experiment that had existed for how artists could own real estate and how artists could collectivize and work together in all those things. So that was like, a real instant model—when we decided to do this we talked to a lot of people. I feel like we were on a listening tour of everyone who had done something similar, asking them to impart their wisdom. The wisdom of the day was to do the NFP model and it took a while for a few other people to really understand who we were even as individuals and say hey you know what, why don’t you try this other way. I felt like finally we started to listen and say well tell us more about what you know about this other way… and realized that it kind of made more sense.
PZ: Yeah and it got a little complicated, we ended up getting an outside moderator to listen to both sides and the decision that we came to was that the NFP would still exist and those people could take the name of the NFP and the grant—we had a $40,000 grant—and that’s the Hive Archive in town. And they ended up purchasing a building on Aleppo, and they’re still working on that building and I think they’re starting to do some programming now. And then we were able to keep going with trying to buy the building
XM: And one of the people who was on the board, who had personally gotten a loan from the city for her own business, held our hand and walked us through that process. Because the grant we had gotten was from the city, through their CDBG money, but they also used CDBG money to help give loans to small businesses. And there was no way we would’ve gotten a loan otherwise, you know- Pippi’s 21, I’m 25. I’m a teacher and she’s a waitress.
PZ: Yeah and I was totally working off the books.
…Go here to read the second part of this interview…
(Special thanks to Daryl Meador for help transcribing this audio into text!)