AS220: Creating a just and uncensored forum for the arts

“Show up, and do the hard things first,” Bert Crenca, founder and artistic director of AS220, advised after spending a few hours showing us the fruits of his organization’s 30 year effort to create an unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts. AS220 strives to create a world where all people can realize their full creative potential, and the organization’s history and practice reflects this vision.

Bert started AS220 with fellow artists Susan Clausen and Scott Seabolt in 1985. With only 800 bucks to their names, the group staked out a dilapidated building in downtown Providence and rented studio space. Undeterred by the lack of heat or running water in the building, the growing group began to live there as well as make art. Fast forward nearly 30 years later, and the organization has renovated and purchased three buildings in Providence, each with a mixed-use structure that includes live-work space for artists, galleries, performance venues, fabrication and design labs, public-access studio space, and street-level shops rented by local businesses. AS stands for “Alternative Space”  an expansive name that gives AS220 the flexibility to change their program offerings to meet the needs of the surrounding community. AS220 funds their activities in a variety of ways, including: charging a small membership fee for people in the community to use some of their equipment and to take classes, consulting for other community arts projects, operating a restaurant and bar, renting live-work lofts to artists and office space to non-profits, and accepting private donations from individuals. AS220 is also supported by a number of foundations and corporations who are drawn to their mission.

 

Renovation in progress of Mercantile building, Photo by Erik Gould

 

The organization has a few special programs that expand their reach: AS220 Youth and AS220 Industries.

 

AS220 Youth provides free year-round arts education programs to individuals aged 14 – 21, with particular emphasis on providing service to youth emerging from the juvenile detention system and otherwise under care of the state. On our visit, we saw kids painting, planning public arts projects, recording music, learning how to play the piano, reading comics, and just generally having a great time together. When you walk into the space, the core values are written prominently on the wall alongside artwork made by participants in the various programs that they offer  photography, visual arts, music production, dance, graphic design, and more.

 
AS220 Youth Space, Photo by Linda Louise King
 
AS220 Industries is composed of a media arts center, a print shop, and AS220 Labs. AS220 Labs, the fabrication arm of the organization, offers courses in digital software and hardware design and allows community members to reserve time on their various machines. It is one of the original sites of Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab Academy, a six-month certification program in digital fabrication.
 

Bert stressed to us the importance of growing an organization like AS220 organically, and credits the non-hierarchical structure of the organization and the shared values they embody through their practice as reasons for their success. All employees of the non-profit arm of AS220  from the janitors who clean the floors to Bert himself  are paid the same salary. Bert believes that this tangible equity helps all employees feel an equal sense of ownership of the organization’s activities and, importantly, to speak up when they feel that something should be changed or improved.

 

As we walked down the street to visit AS220’s various properties, it seemed like Bert knew everyone who walked by us, and he stopped to talk with each of them. It reminded me of the years I spent working at a coffeeshop in college  being part of a neighborhood’s “third place” infrastructure changed the way I defined my social network and helped me understand how time, space, and kindness builds relationships.

 

I wanted to visit AS220 to learn more about their mission, service to the local community, and model for financial sustainability, as I someday hope to start a community space in my hometown of Seattle. It is encouraging to see so many makerspaces opening across the globe and inviting people to create things together, but I feel that there is more these organizations can do to include new voices and perspectives in their spaces  something which AS220 does particularly well through conscious outreach and mindful design of convening spaces.

 

I left with lots of inspiration and will definitely be returning over the summer to check out one of their public events.

 

Learn more about AS220 at http://www.as220.org