Providence’s own creative incubator and arts-based community development initiative, AS220, celebrates its 30th birthday this year with the acquisition of two new buildings, a cabaret birthday bash starring John Waters and its first new Artistic Director since its inception. What started with $800 and a stalwart manifesto drafted by a handful of artists in a one-room rental above PPAC, has grown into a non-profit powerhouse with 55 employees and represents a $25,000,000+ real estate investment in downtown Providence. It has also become the template that arts-focused community-building organizations around the world are now seeking to emulate. Clearly, AS220 has plenty to feel proud of this year as it strides confidently into its figurative adulthood.
How it all Began
“We challenge the pervasive notion that complete, unbridled, uncensored freedom produces mediocrity and that excellence rises out of repression. It does not! Art is stifled and stagnates under repression whether that repression is overtly political or covertly economic, hence the historical exodus of artists and others from repressive states to those more conducive to the free expression of ideas,” cries the “New Challenge” Art Manifesto, written by Steven Emma and published in the Providence Eagle on April 14, 1982. One of the document’s original signatories, Umberto “Bert” Crenca, went on to found AS220 three years later as a way to put the manifesto’s principles into practice.
What has made AS220 unique since it started is its unwavering commitment to democratizing the arts and making them accessible to any and all seeking a platform for their creative medium, whatever it may be – “unjuried, uncensored and open to the general public,” as the mission states. This goal has been fulfilled through the building of galleries, performance spaces, educational classes, rentable print shop, media lab, fabrication lab (now featuring 3D printing machines) and darkroom hours, and four dozen affordable live/work studios for artists across all mediums, as well as career-oriented programming for youths in juvenile detention facilities and group homes. A fine arts degree, patronage, media praise or an established reputation as an artist are completely unnecessary for those who wish to participate. All that is needed is a spirit of creative expression and the desire to make art.
AS220 as an International Model
At a time when grassroots-centric community-building initiatives seem to be cropping up everywhere, AS220 is the wise older sister who has already been around the block and, with three decades of trial-and-error under her belt, can offer some sage advice to fledglings.
In recent years, Bert has met with arts organizations from such widespread locales as Estonia, Ireland, Ukraine, Spain, New Zealand, Kuwait and Taiwan, as well as many from within the US. It’s all part of the consultancy program Practice//Practice, which teaches AS220’s models for responsible urban development and community engagement incorporating the arts.
For the past two years, the Fulbright Program has brought its cohort to Providence to participate in facility tours, workshops on asset mapping and sustainability and breakout discussions about country/region-specific concerns on how to implement the AS220 model successfully.
After serving 30 energetic years as Creative Director, Bert will be transitioning into his new role as International Ambassador/Consultant, in addition to taking a more active role in the real estate development side of things. As Bert moves into his expanded duties, who will be stepping in to fill his irreplaceable shoes?
A New Era of Leadership
An organization committed to nurturing creative growth can be an excellent environment for talented individuals to quickly flourish. Puerto Rican native Shey Rivera started with AS220 as an Administrative Assistant in 2010. Four and a half years later, she is now positioned to succeed Bert, its founder and longtime leader, as artistic director. At a more staunch institution, Shey’s youthful energy and dizzyingly rapid climb up the organizational ladder (from Admin Assistant to Association Managing Director, then Director of Programs in just a handful of years) might have been unthinkable. But at AS220, Shey’s grounded articulate clarity, her leadership ease and her inarguable commitment to the mission statement and the Providence community have made her the winning choice to take the reigns as the organization ventures into new terrain.
“My plan moving forward is to obviously honor the history, mission and unjuried/uncensored spirit of AS220,” says Shey. “I can only add to what Bert has already built in collaboration with so many people over the years and work with our current team. But we definitely hope to connect more with the diverse populations that have been growing in Providence – the city is now almost 40% Latino, along with the Cambodian and Laotian communities, the Cape Verdean community and many African immigrants. The question is, how can we keep ourselves relevant to the community when the community has been changing so much in recent years?”
Shey largely credits her Puerto Rican upbringing for where she has ended up now, having worked in finance and administration but also having been heavily involved in the country’s vibrant arts, music and literature scene. She moved to Providence for the affordability and “for the incredible artists living in our city – whether they’re ‘on top’ and visible or more underground and hiding under the radar.”