AS220 is an open arts forum in Providence, Rhode Island providing artists resources such as gallery space, darkrooms, and stages. AS220 also offers creative programs to young people, according to this feature article commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.


Photograph by Scott Lapham

The sitcom "Cheers" concocted a long, happy run by billing itself as a welcoming Boston pub "where everybody knows your name." Forty miles south, a real life art community/gallery/club named AS220 has kept the welcome mat out in Providence, Rhode Island, since 1985 for artists, musicians, performers, activists and audiences of every stripe.

AS220 is an egalitarian enterprise where art, music, food and community building go hand in hand. It attracts characters beyond the imagination of TV scriptwriters and has helped breathe life into a once ominous stretch of downtown Providence. Its credo - and mantra still - was that art should be unjuried and uncensored. It remains a place where any artist in Rhode Island, professional or amateur, can exhibit. However, they must have patience. The wait now stretches up to two years to put on a show in AS220's various galleries, hallways and crannies.

AS220 Exhibition
Photograph by Snappy the FoodCam

The name AS220 is a story in itself. The "AS" stands for Art Space or Alternative Space - take your pick - while the "220" commemorates its original humble home above the Providence Performing Arts Center at 220 Weybosset Street in Providence. The full name is also an homage to P.S. 1 and PS122, public schools-turned-alternative art spaces in New York City.

AS220 mixes visual art with heavy helpings of music, serving as a venue for an eclectic mix of rock, folk, jazz, punk, zydeco, hip hop, heavy metal and more. It hosts poetry slams and schedules actors and satirists as well as a traveling anarchist circus. People stream in not only to see what's new on the walls each month and listen to nightly jams, but to use communal facilities where they can silk-screen a T-shirt, make a chapbook, enlarge travel shots into 22-inch art prints, or simply grab a bite and check email at the free computers upstairs. There's also a video studio that produces two half-hour shows each month for Providence's cable television channel. In the spirit of the place, the producers promise to use everything that comes in over the transom, although the length and how it's spliced is up to them.

Musicians practice in artist studio
Photograph by Pamela Murray

AS220 is home to 11 artists in quarters reserved for low-income artists who are deeply involved in the community. It also houses the studios of nine more artists. Everyone on staff is paid the same, from artistic director and founder Umberto "Bert" Crenca to those who make the sandwiches in the cafŽ. For years that meant minimum wage, but the stipend has since climbed to $11 an hour. Hundreds of volunteers donate their labor, taking tickets, sweeping floors, and helping stage the Fool's Ball, an annual fund-raising extravaganza that includes a parade of life-size puppets through city streets.

From its original site, AS220 relocated to Richmond Street, where Crenca, wife Susan Clausen and other artists dwelled illegally in tiny studios, sharing a spartan kitchen and bathroom with the club's snack bar. That space was not only unjuried, but unheated. Jim Finnerty, a trumpet player and instrument maker, remembers icicles on his window in winter. (He also remembers fondly the house "rule": "You could make noise 24 hours a day.")

Artistic Director and Founder Umberto Crenca
Photograph by Pamela Murray

AS220 bustled with ideas and energy and made friends in high places. Far from trying to shut AS220 down for code violations, city elders were eager to help it find larger, legitimate quarters. It fit right into the dream of Providence's colorful former mayor, Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., to turn the city into a mecca for artists - and the tourist traffic that art creates. (See Reviving a City Through the Arts sidebar.)

AS220 raised and borrowed $1.2 million to buy and rehabilitate its own three-story home in 1993: a leaky, down-at-the-heels building on Empire Street that once housed a warren of jewelry shops. At the time, Empire was more tenderloin than rialto, with squalid bars, an adult bookstore and the type of commerce such establishments attracted. Lucie Searle, a local developer who helped AS220 find its new home, said that people heading to Trinity Repertory Company around the corner found it "so creepy" that they would "literally get off of the sidewalk and walk in the street rather than walk in front of that building."

Giant puppet at Fool's Ball Parade
Photograph by Scott Lapham

AS220's arrival heralded the rapid rebirth of Empire Street. It shares its 22,600 square feet with the Perishable Theatre and two bars and a barbershop that pay commercial rents. New businesses have opened up on the block, and the city's Gallery Trolley makes regular stops on Empire Street. The city recently forgave $181,000 that it lent the artists' community. "I'm proud of them and proud of what they do. They make our city alive," said former Mayor Cianci.

AS220, always open to experimentation in music and art, has also expanded its reach, creating educational and vocational opportunities for youth from Providence's poorest neighborhoods and those incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School.

Performing in front of AS220's Café
Photograph by Shawn Wallace

It launched a satellite facility, the Broad Street Studio, in the poorest part of town where young people can continue taking classes and learning skills after they leave the juvenile facility (See A Wider Canvas: AS220's Work with Troubled Teens sidebar.) This is tougher, riskier work than booking an unknown band for a Friday night and seeing how many people will pay the $5 cover charge. But Crenca and his fellow artists/activists remain as committed now to expanding AS220's reach as they were two decades ago when all they wanted was a place to hang their paintings.

AS220 also has forged a partnership with AmeriCorps. Under the banner of its Statewide Arts and Humanities Mission (S.A.M.), AS220 places VISTA volunteers in nonprofit organizations across the city and state to work with youth on community-building projects. These VISTA opportunities in Providence are a hot ticket for AmeriCorps recruiters across the country, said Vincent Marzullo, the Rhode Island director of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The partnership also has helped AS220 develop "a true community mission," he said.

AS220's Broad Street Studio
Photograph by Scott Lapham

With support from the The Wallace Foundation, social service contracts from AmeriCorps, the city and state, and with revenues from its galleries and stage, the annual budget for AS220 now tops $1 million, including $260,000 for the Broad Street Studio youth activities.

Managing Director Shawn Wallace, who keeps the accounts, and keeps the computers running, first ventured into AS220 in 1989 to watch a University of Rhode Island classmate do a Jack Kerouac imitation on stage. Soon the computer engineering major was playing music and performing in skits himself. For Wallace and his colleagues, including program director and former VISTA volunteer Kim Kazan and director of communications Geoff Griffin, AS220 offers ample opportunities to stretch their own creativity, from working on the community's funky website to compiling the bimonthly newsletter that goes out to 7,000 homes.

Broad Street Studio's welding workshop
Photograph by Scott Lapham

AS220 is not yet well known outside its home territory, although word is starting to spread. A group of regulars - including the Pork Chop Lounge, the irreverent in-house satirists/musicians who recently ended a eight-year run on Sunday nights - journeyed to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland last summer. Providence-based Associated Press writer Amy Forliti captured AS220's spirit in a colorful feature about this "urban big top" that was distributed nationally in December 2001.

Despite its considerable success, Crenca often encounters skepticism in the art world about AS220's unjuried approach. He said that those most troubled by it "are people who don't come here. They just make assumptions."

The artists who exhibit at AS220, said Crenca, "are making stuff happen, experimenting and taking risks. Very, very often it's powerful and profound. We present more quality art in spite of our unjuried mission than any other institution large or small in this state. And we've learned how to do it and still draw audiences."

"We never tell people what to show, but we might match them up with someone else," said Crenca. The gallery staff, headed by Kim Kazan, also decides which space an artist gets. The hallways, obviously, are less prominent than the 70-foot galleries upstairs and surrounding the Cafe and stage. Likewise, if a not-ready-for-prime-time guitar player wants to perform, "we'll include him in a cabaret format where he's only playing one five-minute piece." See Umberto Crenca: An Impresario with His Feet on the Ground sidebar.

Peter John Boyle, an artist whose specialty is intricate drawings and text on blackboards, has been part of the AS220 community from the beginning. He's never bought into the "unjuried" concept. "It's always going to be prejudiced in some direction," said Boyle, who took over every inch of gallery space this spring for a 25-year retrospective of his blackboard drawings.

"When we first started, just keeping the doors open was a big accomplishment, because all we had was a coffee pot and a piano in a rented $500-a-month loft," said Boyle. "I thought the emphasis was going to be more on excellence. ... It's kind of degrading to have to hurry up and take your work down so someone who paints clowns on velvet can put up their work."

On the other hand, said this self-appointed curmudgeon and critic, AS220 "allows me and a bunch of other people to be completely non-commercial in our approach to art and still have a place to exhibit. That is just a wonderful thing. ... I'm sure that AS220 will be like Brown University in 300 years. It will be huge and lots of people will imitate it."

Dorothy Jungels, founder and artistic director of Providence's Everett Dance Theater and Carriage House Stage and School, said, "Some people just want to be told what's good and that's all they want to see. Others feel they can sort it out themselves, and that's what you find at AS220 - the worst and the best. It's unique."

Patricia A. McLaughlin, who spearheaded creation of the Arts and Entertainment District for the city, said AS220 was "was ahead of its time. It provided space for artists to live and work together and really feel inspired by each other. It's the first stop for most artists when they come into the city. They bridge the highbrow art society and the artists on the street. They are not just a downtown arts organization now. They are actually out in neighborhoods working with youths."

After helping AS220 relocate, developer Lucie Searle stayed to serve a term as chair of its board. "It's very easy to get hooked on these folks. People who get exposed to AS220 have a way of staying connected. There's a waiting list for everything that goes on there, whether it's to live there, work there, exhibit or perform there," she said.

There is no waiting list, fortunately, to venture inside the door at 115 Empire Street. Visitors, however, must pass under the sign with the signature logo: AS220 atop black-and-yellow caution stripes.

Which signifies?

"Beware," Crenca said with a smile. "You never know what's going to happen here."

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