Making space for artists

Friday, December 7, 2001

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: Feast your eyes on an urban big top that's bound to delight anyone with an appetite for art.

And with acts ranging from rock 'n' roll shows to screen printing classes, from figure drawing sessions to poetry readings, some say its diversity is what makes AS220 the greatest show on Earth.

"It's a variety because it's community based," said 24-year-old Pete Cardoso, who runs the facility's screen printing room. "We'll have punk rockers down here one day printing shirts, and then a grandmother down here doing greeting cards the next day -- sometimes all on the same day."

AS220 is a nonprofit organization in downtown Providence that is open to any Rhode Islander who wants to share his or her talent with the masses without being judged or censored.

Complete with a stage and five galleries -- actually, nearly every inch of wall space could be considered a gallery -- AS220's mission is to remain accessible to everyone. The facility includes living-work space for artists, art studios available for rent, a cafe and dark rooms.

"I know of other spaces around the country that do some of what AS220 does, but not all of what AS220 does," said Randy Rosenbaum, director of the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts. "The package of AS220 is what I believe is unique."

The organization's name, a play on the way public schools are named in New York, can stand for anything from "Artist Space" to "Alternative Space" and stays as open-ended as the people it serves. The numbers stand for its first address, 220 Weybosset St., said Geoff Griffin, AS220's communications director.

"We think that a lot of what they're doing can be a national example of what a cultural organization can look like," said Michael Moore, a program director at the Wallace Reader's Digest Funds, a nonprofit group that gave AS220 a four-year, $325,000 grant.

Moore said AS220 is one of about 150 organizations nationwide that is a leader in creating opportunities for people to participate in the arts.

"I think the thing that distinguishes it most for us is really the level of inclusion that it represents," Moore said.

Marcella Kroll, a 24-year-old mixed media artist, said the environment at AS220 has helped her focus on her sketching, painting and performing. She has also picked up a knack for screen printing.

"I've just found this place to be so open and receptive and easily accessible. I like the community support -- people are always working," said Kroll, who moved in to one of AS220's apartments in September. "I feel much more inspired here and grounded."

AS220's open mission was evident on one recent night, as the facility exploded with activity: Cardoso taught a screen printing class in the basement as an indie rock band performed a sound check on the main stage.

Meanwhile, about a dozen musicians carried fiddles and guitars to an art gallery upstairs, where they jammed to Appalachian folk melodies, surrounded by the hand-painted plates hanging on the gallery's walls.

"Having this all-in-one building is what allows all this to happen," said Griffin, 31. "When you come in looking for one thing, you end up seeing a lot more."

AS220 began as the brainchild of Umberto Crenca, a self-taught painter who became frustrated with the inaccessibility of the art industry. He and two others, Susan Clausen and Scott Seaboldt, wanted to create a place where anyone could show original work.

"What's more important than a place where people should feel safe and comfortable to express themselves?" said Crenca, 51, AS220's artistic director. "It's an opportunity for the community to be enriched."

AS220 opened for the first time in 1985 above the Providence Performing Arts Center. It then moved to a space above a nightclub on Richmond Avenue, and ended up booking popular bands at a time when other music venues in the city had closed their doors.

"The only thing left creatively in this town was a little pilot light, and AS220 was fanning it and blowing it to make sure it didn't go out," said Crenca. "There was an obvious need."

But the Richmond Avenue facility had problems and was not up to code. When city officials discovered this, they worked with AS220 to make the facility legal.

"We believed in them from the very beginning," said Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., adding that AS220 has attracted artists of all different shapes and sizes. "It's an incubator in some ways for artists to live and work in."

With the city's help, AS220 eventually relocated in 1993 to its current location on Empire Street.

These days, activities at AS220 include mixed-media art exhibits, jazz concerts, poetry readings and a series of panel discussions called Action Speaks, which just received an award from the Federation of State Humanities Councils, a spinoff of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Crenca said. Some events are free, others require a small fee.

And while performing or displaying art is a goal for many artists, AS220's founders realized that artists need resources to create. The center's 22,000-square-foot building includes studio spaces that artists can rent, a computer lab and a video editing suite.

The facility also has 11 low-income apartments for artists who demonstrate a financial need and a dedication to their craft and to the community. The resident artists live in a dorm-style arrangement, with private rooms that include work space, and a shared bathroom and kitchen.

Residents must undergo a stringent application process, submitting an artistic resume and portfolio. They also are interviewed by other residents and an outside artist, said Kroll. All residents are required to volunteer at the facility at least five hours each month.

While anyone can enjoy AS220's lectures or concerts, aspiring artists say the facility gives them access to resources, a chance to network with others in the art community and an opportunity to explore new ideas.

"I've seen people come in saying they were visual artists, and they leave here a musician," Crenca said. "I could never have done this, or continue doing it, if it wasn't for the fact that the community responded in the way they did."


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