AS220 – The Egalitarian Art Empire

I had one of those moments the other day when you look around and suddenly see something, actually SEE it for the first time and then realize, “Jesus, this has been here the whole time?”. I am talking about AS220 in Providence, RI and, yeah, it’s been around since 1985.  It is one of the most impressive organization in New England dedicated to enabling the realization of artists’ dreams. They seem to have developed a super-hero funding strategy and have accomplished the near impossible (to this Bostonian) – creating affordable access to tools of many trades usually only found in art school facilities, providing a significant amount of low-income live/work space for artists, art and performance presentation space, entertainment, a restaurant,a BAR!, …I could go on and on. The more I learn about AS220 the more I’m in awe. I hope to set up an appointment to tour the place and learn more. Housed in a collection of buildings are what I consider to be a dream-list of resources and programs for citizens of Providence and beyond (artist and otherwise).  The maker’s facilities, alone, are significant. Referred to as AS220 Industries: the Printshop, the Labs, and the soon-to-be-expanded Media Arts are each expansive in their variety of offerings and all provide work space, accessibility to tools of the trade, classes, workshops, and most importantly, training. AS220’s credo is un-juried, un-censored, and all-ages access to all their presentation space. There are 5 gallery spaces as well as a performance space that hosts music and all manner of events. Here is a link to Artistic Director Umberto Crenca’s TedX presentation on how the un-juried, un-censored, all-ages thing came to be. It’s intense but I can get down with it. He’s echoing  a lot of complaints many of us have in Boston and, I’m sure, everywhere else art is made and judged.

AS220 performance space

AS220 performance space

Here’s the part that really blows my mind. AS220 provides 60 live/work studios, 80% of which have affordable housing income restrictions, in addition to many regular work studios and one live/work space held for an artist in residence. On their website, they claim to be the “leading provider of low income housing in Downtown Providence”. I haven’t found anything to back that up but that’s besides the point. They are providing 60 live/work studios! Here in Boston, affordable live/work space is an endangered species with the development of the Fort Point area. The Visiting Artist Residency program seems to be the one element in the organization that is predominantly curated. Resident artists are mainly nominated by AS220 staff (though it is technically possible to propose a project). They are interested in artists and projects that will directly collaborate with AS220 staff and “utilize multiple aspects of the organization”. I am usually a big fan of the open call for artist residencies because the more access to opportunities the better, but AS220 is so egalitarian in all other aspects that it seems to make sense in this case. They seem to find interesting work to compliment all that happens there. It also gives the organization the opportunity to extend their reach nationally. Just picking through the list of recent artists, here are some of my favorites: Dennis McNett, Marcella Kroll, Huáscar Robles. I’ve still left out their youth program that just got a reward presented to them by the First Lady, and Foo Fest (their annual arts and music festival)! AS220 is truly an empire. One of it’s 3 buildings is also located on Empire St. Perfect. Boston needs an organization like this but I’m not sure the city has the room or the motivation to deny a new luxury condo complex from grabbing up whatever space there is left  for something of this scale. I love you, Boston, but I it’s true. I’d love to be proven wrong. I will say that we are lucky to have AS220 in close proximity, a short commuter rail ride away from Boston. Sending love to you, Providence.

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