Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of touring an incredibly vital cultural commons in the heart of Providence, Rhode Island.  My host was Bert Crenca, the artistic director of AS220.  Nearly everyone knows AS220 as one of the most happening places in the city.  It offers everything:  rehearsal spaces, poetry slams, live music, dance performances, figure drawing, affordable work studios, a print shop, specialized art equipment, cheap apartments for struggling artists, and more. 

What may be less appreciated is that AS220 is a self-sustaining creative commons (lower case).  While it has all sorts of interactions with the market, government and philanthropy, it is really an unheralded model of a commons for producing and enjoying the arts.  It is financially self-sustaining, independently managed, and grassroots-responsive.  It is dedicated to art made by and for the people.

The “AS” in AS220 stands for “Artists’ Space”; 220 was the initial address of the distressed building it originally occupied in 1985.  AS220 quickly outgrew that space and in 1992, with help from the mayor’s office and tax breaks normally used by commercial developers, acquired a 21,000 square-foot building in a blighted, drug-ridden part of town.  In 2006 and 2008, AS220 bought two additional buildings nearby that have allowed the sprawling Providence arts community to grow even more.  Now in its 27th year, AS220 has a budget of $2.8 million, 50 employees and hosts dozens of art projects in the three downtown buildings that it owns.

Calling AS220 a “nonprofit organization” fails to capture its real achievement or inner logic.  AS220 has been able to create its own commons for the arts largely because of its ingenuity in acquiring three downtown buildings.  This has allowed it to generate its own revenue streams that help it protect its autonomy and take greater risks.  AS220 rents out street-level spaces to restaurants and shops that share its funky, creative ethic, which in turn has enabled AS220 to leverage that money to develop a more diversified funding base:  membership fees to use studio equipment; fees for art classes; contract work for printing and computer animation; and of course the sale of artworks.  AS220 also rents out cheap studio space and artists’ apartments, covering its costs while advancing the arts. 

Rather than having to become a desperate supplicant always trying to please stuffy donors or cater to preconceived notions of “what sells” in artistic markets (another revival of Annie, anyone?), AS220 has the equity base to let artists be artists.  What a concept!  But this is only possible because AS220 has the sovereignty to run itself as a commons in the first place.  Its core mission is not to make money in the marketplace, or to satisfy foundations, or to spur urban development.  It is to let artists be artists. 

Walk around the AS220 buildings, and the fruits of this ethic become abundantly clear.  Fascinating and fantastic artwork abounds:  prints, murals, paintings, and much else.  The AS220 universe is no genteel, sanitized idea of high arts, as some society matron might conceive it.  It’s a place where photographers, poets, dancers, painters, musicians, hip-hop artists, digital fabricators with 3D printers and many others can be themselves – in all their funky, experimental, transcendent, beautiful, offbeat glory. 

A great example is the 38 by 80 foot mural designed by Rhode Island School of Design graduate Shepard Fairey, the street artist famous for his Obama poster.  Bert asked him to design the mural for the 25th anniversary of AS220, and Fairey did it for next to nothing because of a favor that Bert had shown him years earlier when Fairey had been an unknown artist. 

Another example:  Bert showed me a special electronic jukebox that some people associated with AS220 built in the bar and grill that it operates.  The jukebox contains only original songs written by bands who have used the AS220 performance space; no cover tunes are allowed.  As a result, AS220 refuses to pay any blanket license fees to performance-licensing bodies like SESAC or BMI because the jukebox doesn’t have any industry music.  This has become a great source of great contention with those bodies, Bert said.  I have to admire AS220’s chutzpah, as if to say: We don’t want your stinkin’ commercial pop music – that’s why we only play our own! 

I also love the AS220 mission statement:  “Exhibitions and performances in the forum will be unjuried, uncensored and open to the general public.  Our facilitates and services are 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.”  The main gallery space at AS220 is booked for the next three years.  (But there are four other galleries as well.)

Several other things impressed about AS220:  its sheer scale, the diversity of arts activities, and its self-confidence and integrity in facilitating arts and culture.  The place is no platform for co-branding or furtive marketing.  It doesn’t treat people as consumers, but as human beings.  It doesn’t pander.  In a world in which it is routine for institutions to aggressively market and brand themselves – to suck up to people and demand, “Love me!” – AS220’s is refreshingly honest and unpretentious.  These institutional capacities, I believe, are related to AS220’s commitment to operating as a commons.  It is first and foremost an enterprise of, by and for artists and the community.

Of course, AS220 has ended up becoming a highly effective catalyst of economic development in downtown Providence.  Its projects serve an estimated 50,000 people every year.  Thanks to such traffic and the kinds of people attracted to AS220’s music, art, galleries, performances and classes, the neighborhood has improved.  Nearby buildings that were once beset with drug dealers and prostitutes have been renovated; a fancy hotel is moving in.  Other new businesses have arisen. 

I don’t know how Bert might see it, but speaking as a mere visitor, I think the secret of AS220’s success has been its ability to chart its own course and cater to serious emerging and amateur artists.  It has been able to evolve fairly independently, unbeholden to investors out to make a buck, politicians eager for conventional downtown development or candy-ass donors who have their own upscale ideas of what art should be.  AS220 has flourished, I would argue, because it could be run as a commons, not as a grantee or political client or business enterprise.

Now there’s an interesting idea:  the commons as an economic development strategy.  Just as the presence of Central Park has made all of the adjacent real estate that much more valuable, so the presence of an artistic/cultural commons enlivens everything that it comes into contact with.  But will the mandarins of “development” dare to let artists be artists and then govern themselves on their own terms? 

I once had a dinner party conversation with a high-ranking dean at a major university, and he seemed eager to adopt the ideas of development guru Richard Florida:  make a place attractive for the “creative class” and economic development will follow.  The only problem with this basic idea, as I see it, is that so many politicians and administrators think that they should control the process themselves.  They think they know what creativity should do (answer:  prettify things, attract crowds and boost economic development).  They don’t really groove on the substance of what artists do, just on its possible economic effects.

I say, why not empower artists by giving them some autonomy, real equity assets and good leadership, and let them do their thing as commoners?  The lower overhead costs will make it easier to honor artistic authenticity.  The autonomy will force artists to take responsibility for themselves, both economically and artistically.  Isolated artists will be able to find and grow their own communities, leading to richer creative results.  The community will have some alternatives to the mindless commercial pap that Murdoch, Disney, the TV networks and the record industry peddle, and people will be empowered to become serious participants in culture, not just consumers.  Honoring artistic voices by giving them a stable institutional gathering place will manifest itself in countless, unexpected ways.  (But don’t insist upon short-term, cause-and-effect results, let alone return on investment; that’s a secondary, indirect effect.)

Like any commons, AS220 is an artifact of history.  So any artists wishing to emulate its success will have to find their own path, and do it in their own style.  But how wonderful that AS220 stands as an existence proof that it can be done.