The current issue of NEA Arts focuses on the interaction of artists and the communities in which they live and work. The article “Young at Art” looks at a few of the programs serving kids in distressed urban neighborhoods in the city of Providence, Rhode Island . Among the programs discussed was AS 220 which gives the arts a place in their community through residential and work studios, galleries, and performance spaces as well as to providing a blend of arts education and supportive services to the city’s at risk youth. Bert Crenca founded AS 220 25 years ago and continues as its Artistic director. He and I recently had a conversation about AS 220 in general, and its youth programs in particular. Let’s listen:
Jo Reed: Bert Crenca, you are the founder, or one of the founders, of AS220. Can you explain what it is, and how it began?
Bert Crenca: Absolutely. 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: You mentioned 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. 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 community, the current issue of NEA ARTS focuses on artists in the community, and I know you’ve given a lot of thought to this, and it plays a crucial role in the development of AS 220.
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 created artistic, educational and vocational opportunities for young people in Providence, including kids who have run into problems 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-- and we try to reconnect those kids with us in the community in our youth program. 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 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: You had a satellite facility called Barrow Street Studio, that was primarily for youth programs, that morphed into AS 220 Youth Studios.
Bert Crenca: We brought that downtown for a variety of reasons. We initially went into one of the more economically repressed communities in the city to start the program, and for a whole variety of reasons-- and a lot of it generated by youth and families-- that we brought it all downtown, where the buses come, and it's more democratic in a sense in terms of access statewide, and a lot of people were afraid to go into certain neighborhoods because of turf issues and gang-related stuff and things like that. So we eventually moved it into our building downtown and have been expanding it into downtown ever since. We have about 150 kids engaged in any given week.
Jo Reed: In different arts.
Bert Crenca: Every art form you can imagine. Yeah, in the visual, painting, photography; with performing arts; we have recording studios for the kids. They record demos, they create all original beats and lyrics and music. And we have dance-- every art form. And we also have the tech labs that we work with. We have a fabrication lab that's partially in partnership with MIT and the Center for Bits and Atoms.
Jo Reed: Tell me about the Providence Youth Arts Collaboration. Your organization is a partner. What is that, and how did it come about?
Bert Crenca: Well, there's a whole lot of stuff that has kicked up that did not exist before AS220, and on some level we've helped inspire some of it. So there's a lot of artist-owned space and a lot of organizations that are doing tremendous stuff. I think for the size of our community, we have a very strong base of very sustainable arts venues and programs. And part of that is in the youth community-- New Urban Arts, Community Music Works, City Arts-- I'm missing some…Dance-- all have these really powerful and strong youth programs. And it just made sense that we create a kind of collaborative association out of all the people providing this kind of afterschool youth arts programming. And it's really substantive, and it has a very, very, very strong place in the community.
Jo Reed: And it's basically a partnership of six not-for-profits that work with youth.
Bert Crenca: Correct. And we do some grant-writing together, and we do some programming together. But mostly meet and share-- some of it's best practice, and that kind of stuff.
Jo Reed: What are some of the other results that have been brought about by the Providence Youth Arts Collaboration?
Bert Crenca: Nonprofit organizations, and I don't think it's particularly to the arts; I think it's all in the nonprofit or the NGO community-- I think there can be a very high level of isolation, where you're working very hard, you're very mission-driven, very strong values, and you're out there hustling to make it work and balance your budget and stay in business, against some pretty intense odds, particularly with the economy being the way it is. And it's amazing how some association and some sharing and some identification and some best practice, and just creating a community to sort of just work through some of this stuff together, how empowering that can be. And I think it's really been a very positive experience for us. I mean, there's so much conversation given to the idea of collaboration. And I don't know how you say the same thing differently that becomes more propelling in a way, but I think-- I'm doing a presentation in Canada and in Memphis soon, and it's interesting because they're asking not for me just to talk about AS220, but to talk about Providence and how art and culture has played a role in the sort of renaissance of Providence. And the more I look at it, the more I realize that there's been a tremendous amount of cross-sector collaboration and things like that. Whether it had been very conscious or very strategic, like the youth program collaborative has been, or not, these things do not get done and people do not sustain themselves in isolation. Not possible. Particularly under the pressures we're under now financially. So it's hard for me to quantify exactly all of the positive results of this kind of collaboration, but it's significant.
Jo Reed: And the collaboration that you have with the other youth arts organizations-- you've sort of alluded to it-- but do you see that coming together actually improving arts in the community in general?
Bert Crenca: Well, I think that that's absolutely true. I mean, I think we're creating-- we're working with young people to create a kind of support system for them to be able to really imagine themselves in creative fields. And that strengthens our community and an awareness. It's creating an awareness. So those kids also go home to their parents, and a lot of the things that are being served by these youth programs are new communities of people who are living in our cities, people who have immigrated in from the Southeast Asian community, from Africa, from Latin communities, and they're new communities, and these kids are coming home and being served by this and feeling positive and constructive and productive in ways, and they're bringing that home, and that's-- so it really builds upon itself. I mean, I think the next great task is to get the arts and design back into the public school system. I am very adamant about driving that conversation. We should be teaching kids in grammar school principles of design. And we can do it through game technology and all of these kinds of things, stuff that will really engage our kids. So I mean, we got a lot of work to do.
Jo Reed: Does the local government continue to be supportive of AS 220 and other arts organizations, particularly youth programs?
Bert Crenca: Well, the city has branded itself as a creative capital, so they have bought into this whole idea. Now, of course the city is struggling with finances and balancing its budgets, so monetary resources are a challenge in terms of supporting this. And I feel like this is such a great opportunity for artists in the community to kind of hold the city's feet to the fire given that they're branding themselves this way. And we know that people like Richard Florida and a lot of people have really predicted this idea of a creative class and this kind of creative economy and knowledge economy and all of this stuff, and I'm not big on sort of trendy expressions, but I think we are looking to the future when we're thinking about design and creativity as being economic drivers. And the city has really-- slowly but surely-- it's really been internalized by the municipality, and I think even the state is beginning to understand it as an economic generator, and that it has a lot to do with the future of our economy; not just here, but I think worldwide. And I also think creative people-- I mean, the kinds of problems that we've created for ourselves as a species, without investing in and creating a strong base and infrastructure for creative people-- we really need artists in the mix and in the conversation to solve some of these incredible and overwhelming problems that we've created for ourselves.
Jo Reed: That was Bert Crenca, founder and artistic director of AS 220. To hear the full interview, check out the podcast page on our website, arts.gov. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.