|Headquarters||Providence, Rhode Island, USA|
|Key people||Umberto Crenca, Susan Clauson|
AS220 is a non-profit community arts center located at 115 Empire Street in Downtown, Providence, Rhode Island, USA. AS220 maintains four dozen artist live/work studios, around a dozen individual work studios, four rotating exhibition spaces, a performance space, a black box theatre, a dance studio, a print shop, a community darkroom and digital media lab, a high-tech fabrication lab, an organization-run bar and restaurant, a recording studio, and a youth program, AS220 Youth (formerly named the Broad Street Studio). Its mission is to provide a forum and home for the arts and the creative population of Rhode Island. The facilities and services are made available to all artists who need a place to exhibit, perform, or create their original artwork, especially those who cannot obtain space to exhibit or perform from traditional sources because of financial or other limitations. They also provide a Youth Studio which offers classes to young people in a variety of genres. Exhibitions and performances are unjuried, uncensored, and open to all ages.
AS220 was founded in 1985 by Umberto Crenca, Susan Clausen, and Scott Seabolt as a space for artists and performers in the realms of visual art, music, dance, and writing to exhibit their work and be experimental. They sought to create a forum without the pretension or curatorial constraints of the traditional art world. AS220 began as a collection of seven studios, a gallery, and a performing center on Weybosset St. and Richmond St. in Providence. In 1992, AS220 acquired its own 21,000 square foot building on 95-121 Empire Street, which it renovated in order to create a space for a mixed-use arts complex including resident artists, Groundwerx Dance Company, and the Perishable Theater. Additionally, this was a large step in the creation of an Arts and Entertainment District in Providence. In the 1990s, AS220 operated a public access TV show named TV 220.
A Year, More or Less: Early AS220, 1985ish By Ed Talbot, Early AS220 Staff Member
Empty Space: Where do ideas come from?
The concept of AS220 was the result of a core group of artists’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. The providence art scene, as virtually everywhere, had been held hostage by the whims of a small group of gallery owners and “scholarly” art associations who felt empowered to define art in accordance with their own personal tastes and preferences thereby creating an atmosphere where the mundane and familiar were rewarded and originality was treated as a threat to the establishment. [The problem was] if they didn’t like or understand an artist, then he had little chance of reaching the public. The need was clear; there should be a public venue consisting of a gallery, and a performance space that would be free and unjuried, available to any artist or performer regardless of background, education or political affiliation. In the spring of 1982 a Manifesto Known as “The New Challenge” was published in the now defunct Providence Eagle [April 14, 1982]. It was signed by Steven Emma, Martha Dempster and Umberto Crenca. This document articulated the founding principle upon which AS220 was modeled, “Art must be allowed to flourish unhampered because Art is one of the last areas of culture where Man defines his Spirit”.
Art Space The embryonic stages of AS220’s development occurred in a group of rooms and corridor; a long way from the elevator, on the largely abandoned third floor of the Providence Performing Arts Center on Weybossett St.
On the street above the door was the number 220. Someone had found the old A frame chalkboard that a forgotten restaurant once used to advertise the daily special. On it was written some reference to “Beatniks”, an invitation to “Discover AS220” and the directions “Up to the third floor, left off the elevator, second right, right, left, right, down hall.”
AS220 was a large room, overlooking Weybossett from the third floor. There were a few overstuffed chairs and a couch or two and an unwanted piano that someone had donated. Off the main room were the coffee bar and maybe one or two studios. The only heat provided in the building was to keep the water pipes from freezing. The coffee brewers and light bulbs didn’t help much. Everyone ignored the cold.
Already AS220 had become a successful rendezvous for the “Tragically Hip”. Artist and performers gravitated serendipitously to the space. People gathered and shared coffee, ideas, stories and craft. Bands were created; theater groups were born.
At that time the only revenue to AS220 was the “a pass of the hat” and the “donations” collected for the coffee that was free and the only beverage available.
Alternate Space Sometime in the spring, there was a great buzz about the new space on Richmond St. One evening, just after dark, a group of us walked over to view the second floor of 72 Richmond St.; it was a total wreck! In the darkness, aided by one or two flashlights, we could see the debris and dust of long forgotten jewelry shops and storage areas, hobo abodes and pigeon droppings; no running water, no lights.
I found a fuse box in one of the rooms and went back to my van to get some fuses. When I screwed them into the fuse box the lights came on or at least enough of them to be the cause of great celebration. It seemed the gods were smiling on AS220! Now we could really see the mess we had gotten into.
Over the next several weeks, the rubble was cleared. The electrical system evolved, a plug here a light there, as needed. A new water line was brought up from the basement, which was flooded with two or tree feet of brackish water. A few of us staked out “Studio” spaces on the fringe of AS220 proper. We developed a formula based on the total square footage of space occupied by AS220 and its satellite studios. We all paid the same rate per square foot, including AS220. If AS220 finished the month in deficit, [and it always did] the residents would equally divide that deficit and pay it. It was not a loan or an investment. It was a love offering to a cause in which we all fervently believed.
To actually live in the studios would have been a violation of the numerous Zoning and Fire Codes that regulate the Downtown Area; let’s just say that 72 Richmond St. was awake and a hotbed of activity twenty-four hours a day.
One of the main advantages of the Richmond site was its accessibility to the sidewalk; just straight up two flights of graffiti walled stairs and you were there. Back on the sidewalk, the trusty A-Frame Chalkboard pointed out the now flat black entrance, both the former and the latter adorned with the chalked ornamentations of a well-known local artist and news of what might be “happening at AS220”.
Over time the chalkboard art of Peter Boyle covered any unoccupied storefront on the block. A vintage clothing shop opened across the street adding to the attraction of the block. Pied Piper Productions, who brought several hardcore shows to AS220 was adjacent to the vintage clothing shop.
During that same summer, the club tentatively named The Garage opened as Club Rocket, later to be known as Club Baby Head, beneath AS220, on the ground floor.
One evening the host of a local college radio show, whose program had been banned as a result of some sophomoric power struggle at the radio station, wandered into AS220. As with any visitor we explained the intent and philosophy of the fledgling group. I played some recordings of my own musical invention during the conversation. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the space and its goals.
A few days later I got a call from Neville of “The Noise from Neville Show”
“I’m back on the air” he said to me, “I want to have your band on this Saturday.”
I pointed out that I didn’t really have a band and that most of my work was on muli-track or completely improvisational.
“Today’s Wednesday, that gives you two whole days to get a band together.” I accepted.
Umberto and I had been well received as an improvisational electro/acoustic duo playing at a couple of art openings at the now defunct Bristol Art Museum. I offered to Umberto that we could play this radio station thing. He suggested that we include the other core members of AS220, and so that Saturday we appeared on the radio as “The artist troupe from AS220, Astrolabe” This was the first of many improvisational groups to spring from AS220, “Meat Ball Fluxus” being just one more.
The group consisted of Susan Claussen; Gina Risica, Manny Pombo, Umberto Crenca and myself. We played four or five musical pieces that we had discussed but never really rehearsed. There were a few segments of live interview as Umberto detailed the philosophy on which AS220 was founded.
The radio show was instrumental, informing the public of our existence and intentions, not only because of that first appearance but also because of what happen later.
After the exhilaration of a live broadcast there is, for some of us, a let down, a sudden drop in endorphins as if crashing from some meth-like substance. I knew I was hooked on live radio. I volunteered that I would help with the engineering/production of the show if need be. Before very long I was doing just that, solo. Every Saturday, three to six P.M., Neville played his “Thousands of tapes from all over the world.” While I learned about broadcast engineering as fast as I could. [Sorry to anybody who didn’t like a particular broadcast.]
AS220, The Noise from Neville Show and Club Rocket attracted bands both locally and far a field. Whenever we booked a band for the radio show we would try to coordinate an appearance at AS220 or Club Rocket that same weekend. This co-operation benefited all parties concerned.
Artists and performers from as far away as Italy, Germany, the UK and Japan performed or exhibited at AS220 that first year. The Rhode Island State Council of the Arts began to see AS220 as a serious entity. Artist and bands waited weeks for a show at The Space. We had a real snack bar and a telephone.
Whenever AS220, the organization needed something, there invariably stepped forward someone who would fulfill that need. One night as we watched a performance from the snack bar Bert mentioned that a stage would be great for performance but it would interfere with exhibitions. Portable, folding stages were so expensive and seemed out of our reach. Half joking, I said “Don’t worry, I think its on its way”. Within three days a group of musicians dropped in. They were moving out of town and wondered if we could use a portable, folding stage.
All this happened over twenty years ago. No doubt, there are many interesting details and sub plots that are not covered in this article. During my year, more or less, of being at AS220, I served as Audio Arts Director, Liaison to WRIU Radio, handy man, procurer of that which was needed and Treasurer. We were all willing to do whatever was needed because we believed that AS220 was a concept that should endure. There were others who gave as much and more. I consider it my great privilege to have been present in those early days.
Ed Talbot, December,2006
In 2000, AS220 established the Broad Street Studio. Between 2003 and 2006, they launched a Capital Campaign which raised $2 million to improve the Empire Street Complex, including the creation of the AS220 Bar and Restaurant. In 2006, AS220 purchased the Dreyfus Hotel, on the corner of Washington and Mathewson Street in downtown Providence, from Johnson & Wales University. By May 2007, the 24,000 square foot building was fully restored and occupied. Today, it is home to fourteen residential studios and four work rental studios, as well as the AS220 administrative offices. The building's first floor commercial spaces are occupied by Local 121, an upscale farm-to-table restaurant, and the AS220 Project Space Gallery.
In 2008, AS220 purchased the Mercantile Block, its third downtown building, located at 131 Washington Street. The building, which has four stories and a basement, totals 50,000 square feet. The historic Mercantile Block is used for arts-related offices, work and live studios, and unique local retail and commercial spaces. Clark the Locksmith and The Stable bar, continue to operate on the renovated first floor, as well as local restaurant Viva Mexico!. The AS220 Labs and Printshop also relocated to the Mercantile Block, with expanded bi-level spaces which has introduced digital photography, studio lighting, and photo finishing to AS220 Photo.
- In 1992, Green Day performed at AS220 as part of Poor Richard's Mammothon.
- In 1992, AS220 released an eponymous entitled compilation album, with songs mostly recorded at AS220 in order to raise money for the organization.
- In 1991, Bikini Kill performed with The Nation of Ulysses and Born Against.
- In 1996, Pansy Division, a queercore band known for its openly gay themes and members, played at AS220.
- In 1996, Ed Sanders, poet, singer, activist, and longtime member of The Fugs performed at AS220.
- Performances in the 2000s have included Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Sunn O))), Deer Tick, Health, The Mae Shi, Battles, Deerhunter, Yeasayer, and of Montreal.
- AS220's Foo Fest has featured Andrew W.K., Warpaint, Sun Ra, and Lightning Bolt.
- In 2011, AS220 Youth's ZuKrewe performance group releases their 15 track album "Enter The Zu" on the Free Music Archive, host to over 300 original tracks
- In 2010, contemporary artist Shepard Fairey received the first AS220 Free Culture award.
- In 2011, AS220 hosted a talk with artist Pippi Zornoza & Guggenheim curator Lauren Hinkson celebrating the release of Zornoza's Hex Drawing with AS220 through the Printshop's Editions Project.
Other Cultural Talks
- The late writer/actor Spalding Gray performed a monologue at a 1993 benefit to over 600 individuals.
- In 2010, activist, academic, and author Lawrence Lessig participated in a forum on free culture, copyright, and public art.
- In 1995, poet and former White Panther Party leader John Sinclair performed at AS220.
Buildings and Programs
AS220 offers a variety of performance, learning, residential, studio, and gallery spaces for the community.
The Empire Street complex at AS220 draws in an estimated 50,000 people per year. It houses the AS220 Performance Space, AS220 Bar, AS220 Foo(d), AS220 Youth, Paul Krot Community Darkroom, three gallery spaces, and twenty resident/work studios for artists.
The Performance Space at AS220 showcases eight to twelve events each week, and features live music, performance art, poetry slams, fashion shows, figure drawing, film series featuring art house cinema, cultural performances, and more. It has an open booking policy which provides an uncensored and unjuried space for artists.
AS220 Youth provides a free arts education to individuals aged 14–21, with a special focus on youth under the care of the state. It strives to engage youth in a creative process which leads to positive education, vocational, and social futures. The youth studio works with the Rhode Island Training School and also provides mentoring and receives support from the AmeriCorps*VISTA program. There are workshops in creative writing, dance, music, visual arts, and photography. Approximately two dozen classes are offered weekly and free of charge.
Empire Street houses three galleries, the Main Gallery, Open Window, and the Youth Gallery.
Since August 1994, when the Paul Krot Darkroom was established at 115 Empire Street, AS220’s photography programs have grown to embrace both digital and traditional B&W photography, added studio lighting, and camera rentals, as well as resources for photo finishing, digital editing and large-format printing. In 2012, they announced their intention to expand the photography program to a Media Arts program that supported complementary analog and digital mediums such as: film, video, audio, and computer/web applications.
AS220's purchase of The Mercantile in downtown Providence transformed the building into a space for live and work studios, courses, art offices, retail, and rehearsal spaces.
AS220 Labs offers courses in digital software and hardware design, such as audio engineering and laser cutting. One can also take courses in photography, printmaking, letterpress, and bookbinding. The Print Shop in the Mercantile is available for public use.
The Dreyfus, an old hotel in downtown Providence, was restored by AS220 to hold the AS220 Main Office and Development Office, fourteen work and resident studios, and the Project Space art gallery. The Project Space gallery rotates on a regular basis and primarily houses three-dimensional or installation-based art.
Fools Ball/ Foo Fest
AS220, often aided by local sponsors, throws an annual block party and fundraiser for the community, often called "Fools Ball" or "Foo Fest". Since 1995, the festival has been known for its showcase of live local music acts and resident artists. A concert will often take place in the middle of Empire Street, flooding downtown with festival goers. It is considered a staple summer tradition which aims to help continue the revitalization efforts in the downtown Providence area by involving and uniting residents and local artists.
More than 5,000 people come to Foo Fest every year. There were 19 performers gracing two stages.
- Cicione, Maryleen. The Echo, December 1988.
- The Providence Journal. September 3, 1993. "AS220 arts center to make it official today"
- The Johnson & Wales University Campus Herald. October 25, 1993. Angela Livingston. "A Bright Future for AS220"
- The Quix Quarterly. Winter 1993, Robert Owen Jones, "The architecture column walking down AS220 boulevard"
- "The College Hill Independent" November 14, 1996. Lynn True. "Unlimited Expression"
- "The Empire Street Complex"(2008-03-06). Retrieved 2012-1-13.
- "The Dreyfus". Retrieved 2012-1-13.
- "The Mercantile Block". Retrieved 2012-1-13.
- "Membership Drive". Retrieved 2012-5-17.
- The Providence Sunday Journal. December 6, 1992. Andy Smith. "AS220 releases compilation album"
- King,H. (1993). "Alternative Space: A new Home for AS220", Issues Monthly, 23(1).
- The Providence Journal. April 5, 1996. Andy Smith. "Pansy Division marches gayly ahead"
- The Providence Phoenix. May 17, 1996. Michael Caito. "Phrases and stages."
- "Concerts at AS220". Retrieved 2012-3-19.
- "". Retrieved 2012-4-10.
- "". Retrieved 2-14-2012
- "". Retrieved 2012-4-10.
- The Providence Journal. June 4, 1993. William Gale and Andy Smith. "Spalding Gray to top bill at AS220 benefit"
- Salmons, C. (1995). "Hear him roar", The Providence Phoenix.
- "YouthMaster". Retrieved 2012-1-26.
- "The Mercantile Block". Retrieved 2012-1-26.
- "Workshops". Retrieved 2012-1-26.
- "The Dreyfus". Retrieved 2012-1-26.