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.”