A radical art nonprofit in downtown Providence is revolutionizing the way we think about and build artist communities. AS220 is a refreshing departure from the world of elite art.
Umberto Crenca co-founded AS220 in 1985 on his conviction that every person has the potential for creative expression, and that such expression is critical to fostering a strong community. This decisive belief drives AS220’s unusual policies, distinguishing it from other arts programs nationally and globally.
Since 1985, AS220 has expanded from a single room to a network of industries and programs, encompassing every form of creative expression one might imagine. AS220 boasts three mixed-use buildings, multiple performance spaces, a dance studio, a youth program, a print shop, a media arts lab, a darkroom, a fabrication studio, multiple galleries, a bar and restaurant, and over fifty artists who live and work in their buildings.
AS220’s policies define both its character and its success. The AS220 manifesto declares,
“we challenge the pervasive notion that complete, unbridled, uncensored, freedom produced mediocrity and that excellence rises out of repression. It does not! Art is stifled and stagnates under repression whether that oppression is overtly political or covertly economic… The relegating of an artist to an arbitrary position of insignificance, anonymity, or poverty by any group is a form of repression and must be challenged.”
From its inception, AS220 dedicated itself to acting as an egalitarian space. From this idea sprung AS220’s most unique and controversial policies: unjuried and uncensored.
“Unjuried is a word we made up,” said Marina Balko, Practice//Practice director at AS220. “It basically means that we never put out a call to artists and reject artists based on our judgment of their work. So what that means is any Rhode Island artist who wants to exhibit or perform here is welcome.”
By refraining from judging the artwork it displays, AS220 challenges the way society approaches art and suggests that art should not be restrained by cultural, political, or economic factors. Under this framework, all art is created equal.
In a 2013 TedxProvidence talk, Bert Crenca, said “You ensure quality by providing opportunity.” By removing barriers, art can flourish.
The uncensored policy does present some challenges.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to wrap their brains around because they’ll see something that they don’t like happening and want us to censor it,” said Balko. “We’re just providing the space, anybody can show whatever they want to…If you don’t like it, don’t come to it or leave.”
This policy often produces delicate and uncomfortable situations. Balko said that they once had nude, “possibly close to pornographic,” images scheduled to share a gallery space with artwork meant for young kids. Another time, someone was planning on doing a performance in black face. “That got out and there was a bunch of pushback from the community,” said Balko. As a result, the artist decided to cancel the show. In this way, Balko said people usually end up censoring themselves.
“Sometimes it has drawbacks, but all in all I think it’s a really good policy,” said Balko. The difficult situations act as catalysts for difficult, and often productive, conversations.
AS220 also operates under unusual employment policies: everyone on staff receives equal pay. This kind of system alters the way an organization functions. With equal pay, “we get people who are doing it not for the money, but because they really believe in AS220 or want to do something that they care about,” said Balko. When you disaffiliate money from position ranking, the politics of career climbing change.
“People are in the jobs they want to be in…they’re not trying to get a promotion because of money,” explained Balko. Unfortunately, the equal pay policy can also be a barrier to employees remaining at AS220. Sometimes, said Balko, “we lose people who are really good but they need to pay off their student loans.”
Norlan Olivo, a practicing artist and graduate of AS220’s Youth Program, said that the equal pay policy “gives off a sense that everyone is on equal ground and it’s only coming together that things can happen.”
A sense of togetherness and community engagement pervades AS220. Artists who display work at AS220 meet with staff to discuss their vision. “How we engage with people is on such a human level,” said Balko.
One way AS220 interacts with the community is through the Youth Program. Olivo said that he started going to AS220 when he was in high school.
“Growing up I didn’t really do much art or have any resources or any of that stuff,” he said. At AS220, Olivo became involved with darkroom photography. He then went on to teach photography classes, complete an art degree at Mass Art, and tour as a drummer. He continues to create and show his art.
Olivo said that many youth are positively impacted by AS220’s programming.
“It’s given young people, specifically young people of color, sort of an outlet and these resources to do things that maybe aren’t available in their communities.” Olivo said he’s noticed a changing culture.
“Not that it was ever not acceptable for young people of color to be artists, but I think it’s helping remove some of that stigma and getting kids more involved in the arts.”
“A lot of really cool young kids who are doing cool stuff in the city have come through AS220 or are doing things with AS220,” Olivo said.
Today, Olivo is a Youth Artist in Residence at AS220, where he has a subsidized apartment loft. Olivo said it’s inspiring to be in an environment where everyone is making art, and everyone has access to so many resources.
“It’s just kind of an amazing place,” he said.
The Live/Work program is central to AS220’s mission of creating an artist community. Balko said that the “twenty-four hour vibrancy with people living here and also having the rents going to the sustainability of the buildings is pretty critical to what we do.” Most of the live/work spaces are affordable units, which require a person to make under a certain income to qualify.
AS220 is currently the only organization offering affordable housing in downtown Providence, said Balko. In addition to diversity in age, gender identity, and background, AS220 also looks for diversity in artistic discipline. Artists who want to live at AS220 must submit a portfolio, but the quality of their work does not impact their eligibility. As long as they prove themselves to be working artists, they can be considered for a live/work space.
AS220 prides itself on contributing to the revitalization of downtown Providence. Balko said that Crenca talks about Providence when AS220 first opened. According to those stories, “at that time, the whole street was just drug trade and prostitution and there was just the pub, the barber shop, and a bunch of adult bookstores. Downtown was almost totally abandoned except for a few things sprinkled around,” said Balko. “I think AS220 was one of the first organizations to bring people downtown in a living situation.”
Olivo added that the local music and arts scene is a significant incentive for people to stay in Providence. “AS220 is a big part of that,” he said.
Both Balko and Olivo credit the work of the staff and volunteers for the success of AS220. “AS220 was built on volunteer help. All of the people who live at AS220 have to do five hours of community service every month and that’s part of the deal. It helps keep the community going. That sense of community I feel like makes it work,” said Olivo.
Balko added that owning their buildings has been critical to AS220’s sustainability as an organization. The buildings are what they call “mixed-use, mixed-income,” which means that in addition to the affordable housing, there are commercial spaces that they rent out or lease.
“Having the rent going to the sustainability of the buildings is pretty critical to what we do,” said Balko.
Going forward, Balko envisions AS220 continuing its efforts to engage with the Providence community.
“We really want as many disciplines and genres and communities to be represented in our space or to feel like this is their space too, so it’s just a matter of how do we incentivize them? How do we get them in the door? What can we do to make it easier for them?”
“I think that the potential for a place like that is endless,” said Olivo. “It can go anywhere.”
Images by AS220