Photo by Pam Murray
Bert Crenca talks about founding the community arts center AS220, its interaction with the city Providence, and its arts education offshoot AS220 Youth. [24:46]
Bert Crenca: I was solicited to be an artist in residence in an organization called New England Center for Contemporary Art in Brooklyn, Connecticut. And then from there, I went and traveled for months and months all through Europe-- the backpack kind of trip, even though at this point I'm about, I don't know, 33, 34 years old. So I kind of dematerialized, and then sort of went on a journey. Because I was kind of living a dual life of working in what we artists tend to call the straight world, and at the same time very involved in my studio and really becoming very indulgent in learning more and more about art history and Western philosophy – stuff that I had limited exposure to growing up. And it was like an awakening for me. I mean, I come from very working class parents. My father immigrated here from Italy. And so I went on this journey, and then came back, after a couple of trips back to Europe and particularly Italy, and came back-- did an exhibit in Italy of my work and stuff-- came back and decided that I wanted to start a place that really was based on the values and the ideas that had been established through that process. And that was the idea of a completely unjuried, uncensored venue for the arts; creating a place where it was as much about process and about the opportunity for audiences and artists to commune as it was about art or artists as a commodity.
Jo Reed: That was Bert Crenca, a visual and performing artist and the founder and Artistic Director of AS220, a non-profit center for the arts in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nations great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Established in 1985, AS220 provides a local forum and home for the arts, through the maintenance of residential and work studios, galleries, performance and educational spaces. It's seen as playing a significant role in the development of providence's vibrant Downtown Arts and Entertainment District as well as demonstrating a strong commitment to providing art education to the city's at risk youth. I spoke to Bert Crenca recently and began by asking him for a more thorough description of AS 220.
Bert Crenca: Well, currently it's an arts organization that employs over 50 people, about a 2.7 million dollar budget, three buildings right in the downtown Providence, all historic restoration projects that have a combination of affordable live-work studios, work studios, youth programming, bars, restaurants, performance space, gallery, visual arts exhibition spaces, print shops, tech labs -I'm forgetting something important, darkrooms, commercial tenants-- just, in the truest sense, a mixed use development. It's built on some very, I think, strong ideals and values. So the idea of the unjuried, uncensored mission of AS220 is a real critical component. I think to date, the equal pay policy has been a kind of critical value of AS220. So myself as founder and director is getting the same wage as the latest and newest and youngest hire. So I think it's an organization that continues to reflect on its mission and its values in every decision and in every direction that it takes, and I think that's a lot to do with its growth and the strength of its place in the city of Providence.
Jo Reed: So you say what you mean and you mean what you say.
Bert Crenca: That's the objective.
Jo Reed: How did it all begin, Bert? Because you were clearly there at the beginning, and this has been a big year for you. It's your 25th anniversary.
Bert Crenca: Yeah, and my 60th birthday to boot.
Jo Reed: Happy birthday.
Bert Crenca: So yeah. So, well, it really came out of a process, like most things. It was an idea that evolved through a series of circumstances. I had done an exhibit in 1982-83 at an alternative kind of gallery space in Providence that got panned by the daily newspaper. It was a lot of political content. It was severely panned. An artist in town did an op-ed piece criticizing the critic. As I like to say, kind of in retrospective, I agree more with the critic these days than I do with the artist's review as time has passed. But it brought a lot of artists. We started meeting at my house. We wrote a manifesto that really kind of critiqued the entire system of art support in this country, both the gallery, education system, grants, granting agencies, and it critiqued anything and everything and said that artists shouldn't be discriminated against in any way, whether it be politically or economically; that art has been sort of stripped of its value in culture and in the development of society. And so that manifesto, if you will, got published by a lot of the weekly newspapers, and then we started getting phone calls from people saying, "How would you do it different?" So we created an event called the Rhode Island Art Event, that was decently attended but not massively attended, that was an unjuried, uncensored exhibit. Any artist or performer who wanted to participate was welcome. And the challenge was to be able to accommodate it. So we did a big salon-style hanging, and that process, which was probably over a six-month period, is really where a lot of the ideas and thinking around AS220 were formed. And it was in a time, contextually, where Providence was in just desperate places. It was at the absolute kind of end of a run here in the city, and it was really desperate. A lot of even the sort of commercial clubs that were doing live music and things like that were closing down. And I like to think of AS220 as sort of being the pilot light that was just barely keeping the flame alive in the city. Providence has gone through a tremendous transformation ever since, and I think AS220 has played a very significant role, as humble as it was in terms of its beginnings. I literally started AS220 with 800 dollars and just put rent down on a space.
Jo Reed: I want to just backtrack for a second.
Bert Crenca: Sure.
Jo Reed: Why is unjuried important?
Bert Crenca: Well, first of all, I think the idea of AS220 is to create opportunity. For the longest amount of time in the early stages of AS220, a lot of the funders and foundations and people like that would always push back and say, "How do you ensure quality?" And the response from me was always that you ensure quality by providing opportunity. We as a people have generally been pretty poor judges of what's important in our time. You know, Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Try buying one now. Typically it takes time for those things to surface that I think are going to be of critical importance to defining culture. And I think rather than try to be the arbiter of that, provide as much opportunity for that -AS220 used to have a thing called a Stink Tank and we wrote this paper called "The Compost Theory." And it's really that idea; it's really about creating opportunity in fertile ground without any pressure and need to try to predict what the next greatest thing is going to be or the next important thing in art is going to be, and just creating the environment.
Jo Reed: I'm wondering as I'm hearing you talk about this, Bert, whether that doesn't have a lot to do with the growth of AS220 and its place in the community. Because it would seem to me that the community would have more of a stake in a place where they knew that they might show their stuff or their brother might or their daughter might or their aunt might.
Bert Crenca: Or in fact has, at this point, 25 years later. There's very few people that haven't been touched in one way or another by AS220. I completely agree. I think there's a tremendous sense of ownership. I think there's a tremendous trust, I think. Even the equal pay policy-- the executive director isn't making high six figures-- and I think there's just a phenomenal amount of trust in the organization and tremendous amount of community ownership. And you're right-- the base continues to build by virtue of the fact that we don't reject any artist doing original material in the state of Rhode Island, that we try to accommodate every one of them in every art form. The base just continues to swell. So rather than be loyal to a stable of artists with some-- and excuse the expression; I hate sounding like I'm 18 when in fact I'm 60-- but it's really contrary to sort of a lot of the kinds of elitist ideas and thinking around art that have been pervasive throughout the world, really, not just in the United States.
Jo Reed: Well, that's exactly what I was thinking, and I think that's where the equal pay also comes into play is working against that kind of elitism.
Bert Crenca: That's exactly right. And it's about trust. And this is-- there's always the idea of founders and founder's syndrome, and succession is a big question that we hear all the time with people who are investing in the organization, but I've never felt that this is my place. I have always felt that this belongs to the community, and on occasion have reached out to the community and they've responded extremely well in terms of helping us to sustain or move through crisises at different periods of time or plateaus that we've hit. So I think there--again, I have to refer back to the values and the attitude and the philosophy, and this concept of trust in the organization that has had a lot to do with our growth and sustainability.
Jo Reed: Now, back in the day, when you guys first started out, you had a shared living and studio space that was illegal and unheated.
Bert Crenca: Well you know a lot about us. I think I'm going to start interviewing you in a second here. We're going to turn this around. Yes, that's all absolutely true, and there are anecdotal stories that I tell, and then there are a few I don't. But yeah, that's the way it was. I mean, this was driven by what I felt-- what I knew-- was a very powerful idea, as simple and as obvious as it may be. Did I know I was going to grow or what the real potential of it was? Well, the potential of it, yes. But how it would manifest itself I certainly couldn't predict because I hadn't even had those experiences. I didn't even know what a 501c3 was. So it was definitely rough and tumble in the beginnings. And I will also say that in the beginning, for me, it was a matter of choice. Like in other words, I didn't go through art college and a graduate program and then come out in the community and say, "I'm going to start an art space." I had worked many, many, many different jobs, really, really coming from a working-class background. It took me 13 years to get a bachelor's degree from the local state college. I had lived a whole lot of different lives and had really decided that this was it. My commitment and my passion for what we were attempting to do was 150 percent. There was no other path anymore.
Jo Reed: And crucial to the development of AS220 was a city that was willing to work with you and be supportive of you.
Bert Crenca: Well, the city was hungry. It really needed something happening. And I think at the time-- the Mayor Cianci-- the notorious Mayor Cianci-- he was really knowledgeable about the potential of art and entertainment, if you will, in terms of economic development and those kinds of things, and generating interest in a city. So he was pretty open to stuff, to things, to ideas, and the city was absolutely desperate. Like I said, a lot of venues were closing. The biggest hope and dream of artists in the city of Providence at the time was to get to Boston or get to New York. That has changed dramatically. Artists from all over the world are migrating into Providence now as a result of what was created.
Jo Reed: AS220 moved to Empire Street, and really is credited in a lot of ways with the revival of the area. Can you describe what it was like when you first located there, and describe what it's like now?
Bert Crenca: Well, the building was in horrible disrepair. It was a 22,000-square-foot building, and in front of the building was all drug and prostitution trade. Trinity Repertory Theater, a well-established repertory theater, is right at the end of that block, and people would not walk down the sidewalk in front of our building to get there. They would cross the street or go in a different direction because it was such a threatening block in the city. I mean, we also helped to transform Richmond Street, where we were originally as well, and we're not working on Matheson Street. So yeah, it was in horrible disrepair, and there was a horrible recession going on when we did that building. We always seem to-- our timing seems wild on so many levels. But it also provided a very visible kind of activity that provided a sort of sense of hope within the city that was palpable. I mean, people felt it, sensed it. It was written about. People just say this really positive activity and so many volunteers contributing. We did a lot of sweat equity we put into that original building as well as having a contractor.
Jo Reed: You mention mixed-use development. Why were you so committed to that? What does that bring to the table?
Bert Crenca: Well, it makes it stronger. I mean, it's just the concept-- it's diversity in every sense. I mean, we talk about diversity often when we talk about ethnicity and race, but I think diversity in terms of different kinds of-- between nonprofit sector, commercial businesses, arts and culture-- food and drink is a program of AS220. We have a restaurant that works primarily with local farmers and helps to support the local-- kind of so much conversation around that stuff. And I think the more diverse the community, the more local it is in terms of-- in any one of our buildings, we have all of these components: commercial tenants, we have food and drink in every building, we have public labs that people can participate in, we have artists-in-residence in each of these buildings. So I think as we continue to go forward as a country and talk about the value of diversity in many quarters-- in all, I hope-- it's diversity in a very broad sense. So that mix I think really helps to strengthen and sustain the future of our organization. We're so connected in so many ways to the community.
Jo Reed: Well, speaking of the community, the current issue of NEA Arts looks at artists in the community. I know you've given a lot of thought to this and it plays a crucial role in the development of AS220.
Bert Crenca: Well that was the whole original intent. I had this very romantic idea. When I came out, if you will, as an artist in the community, I thought they were going to be rolling out the red carpet because all my ideas were kind of fantasies based on a lot of self-teaching, where I was very immersed in the culture of Paris and in Europe and the turn of the last century, and really romanticizing about how artists-- the role that artists play in shaping community and acting as mirrors to society, provocateurs and all of that. And that's what I that was valued-- and was really kind of shocked at how little that was honored when I sort of surfaced in the community as an artist, and felt that it was critical that I created a place, for my own survival if nothing else, where that was the priority, that recognizing artists and art as a really critical part of how we define ourselves as a community, that there was a place where that was the focus.
Jo Reed: You've also created artistic, educational and vocational opportunities for young people in Providence, including programs for kids who've run into trouble with the law.
Bert Crenca: Yeah. I think when we work in the Rhode Island Training School, which is the juvenile detention facility in Rhode Island—we work with over half the population in every given week doing art classes of all types, from dance to music to whatever, we try to reconnect those kids with us in the community in our youth program-- I think when I started looking at-- I'm the one who initiated the youth program, but it was like: What's the most marginalized population in terms of youth that we could be serving? Given that AS220's mission is not to provide just to everybody, but in particular to people who do not have the same kinds of opportunities or access to these resources-- gallery space, studios, darkrooms, whatever. And when I was introduced to the population at the Rhode Island Training School, besides my own particular history and compassion for these kids, it looked like the most-- a population that also unfortunately reflected a lot of the changing demographics in our city, in our state, and it also was the most marginalized community of people that I had ever met. So it seemed like a natural to us. And I also believed, selfishly, that by engaging these young people and their stories that this would be another way of empowering AS220 and ensuring its sustainability and ensuring its presence in this community long into the future. These kids come with incredibly powerful stories and histories, and through art, we can honor that. Whereas social services often is always looking at that as something that needs to be changed, that these kids need to be altering that narrative. And we say, "No, it's important. We want to hear it. You have insights into things that are critically important and very moving, and we want you to take control of your personal narrative." And I don't know any other way to sort of penetrate these young people than by honoring their voice and their personal creative expression.
Jo Reed: And finally, Bert: Because this is the 25th anniversary and your 60th birthday, if you had to stop and think, "Okay, 10 years from now, this is where I think AS220 will be," can you do that?
Bert Crenca: Well, I'm not sure about continuing to build physically so much as becoming-- first of all, doing even better jobs at the work that we do locally, and also finding better and better ways to influence the field and export the things that we have learned and the export the values of the organization, which I still believe are very strong and very powerful and very relevant. And that, whether I want that to be the goal or not, it's happening. So AS220 is being referenced a lot. Kresge and Ford Foundations have gotten involved because they think we're presenting a very strong model for the field. So I think a lot of it has to do with getting better, tuning. Bigger isn't always better. So we got 100 thousand square feet, three buildings in downtown right now. I'm not sure if it's about expanding physically, but maybe expanding internally and redefining and refining internally, and then making all of our practices as transparent and as available to as many people as possible.
Jo Reed: Bert Crenca, thank you so much. And I really look forward to visiting AS220 when I'm in Providence over the summer.
Bert Crenca: Oh, please do, Josephine. And I am very impressed with how well prepared you are and how much you know about AS220. Thank you very much.
Jo Reed: Well, no. It's really my pleasure. And listen, we have to-- they need the studio-- but then we can sit down. I moved into Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1980, so I know a thing or two about large--
Bert Crenca: Okay. You know the whole phenomenon.
Jo Reed: I know large, unheated spaces like the back of my hand.
Bert Crenca: <laughing> Okay.
Jo Reed: Have a good holiday.
Bert Crenca: You too.
Jo Reed: Thank you. Thank you, James.
James: Thanks, Jo. Sorry about the cutoff.
Jo Reed: That's okay. Thanks.
James: All right. Take care.
Jo Reed: Bye-bye. Tim, if you can save it as AS220, and I will need a CD. Thanks.
That was Bert Crenca, founder and Artistic director of AS 220, a non-profit community arts center in Providence Rhode Island. . if you want to read about the impact of the arts in other communities around the country, like Kankakee, new Orleans, New York, or Houston, check out the latest issue of our magazine, NEA ARTS. You can it find it on our website, arts.gov.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
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Next week, Azar Nafisi discusses Things I've been Silent About, a memoir about her family and growing up in Iran.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.