Community is a process

By Ruth Harvey, Manager Programmes & Experiences at Puke Ariki, New Plymouth and AS220 Administrative Resident 2013

I’m sitting on the train to New York and I’ve been crying.  Most people would consider that a bad thing, but to me it means I’ve had the kind of richly rewarding experience in Providence I was hoping for.  I can’t really express in words how amazing my time at AS220 was or how profound an effect I know it will have on both my professional and personal life in the future.  I didn’t want to leave.  Umberto (Bert) Crenca, co-founder and artistic director of AS220, said on the way to the train station, “Just let us know when you want us to look for real estate.”  He was only half joking, because he knew I may actually take him and his wife Susan up on the offer.

So, until then …

Happy in my work!  At my desk in the Dreyfus building, AS220.
Happy in my work! At my desk in the Dreyfus building, AS220.
My desk had no view but luckily someone had prepared one earlier.
My desk had no view but luckily someone had prepared one earlier.

I’ve been at AS220 during an interesting time.  The organisation is currently working on a project they call Vision 2020 – a planning process that aims to set AS220’s priorities and direction for the next 7 years.  Led by Programme Director Sheyla Rivera, staff have set out a ‘matrix of desires’ for 2 year and 5 year intervals.  As you’d expect, some of the issues they have raised are challenges New Zealand organisations might share – a need for greater staff and budgetary resources to support growing programmes; and the need for more space to share those programmes with the public.

It was in this context myself and my husband Mike – who came with me to Providence and volunteered at AS220 – were given a project to research: to explore the opportunity for AS220 to create a physical space in downtown Providence that showcases and celebrates Rhode Island’s currently hidden industrial, craft and folk artists.  Referred to as the Guild Project, it represents an exciting new opportunity for AS220 to evolve and build on its role in transforming downtown Providence into a vital, energetic creative hub.  The idea is that the Guild space would take one of two forms – either a membership-based collective ‘guild’ space or a more traditional for-profit gallery.  In the guild model, members – brought together under the banner of AS220 – would rent space to exhibit their work.  AS220 would cover its costs through rent and/or a percentage of sales.  The for-profit gallery space would provide a simpler model and its potentially larger profits could be used to support the gallery, its programming and, hopefully, the wider organisation.  Ideally, the Guild Project would generate enough income to help AS220 become more self-sustaining, reducing the organisation’s dependence on grants (they currently raise 60% of their operating costs through their restaurant, bar, affordable artist live/work studios, cottage industries and commercial tenants; the rest is raised through grants and donations).  The project would also facilitate apprenticeships with individual artists and create other educational opportunities including workshops, demonstrations and possibly internships. 

The Guild Project would include workshops and demonstrations in the industrial, craft and folk arts, complementing classes already on offer at AS220 Industries.  I did a cyanotype workshop in the Print Shop while I was on my residency.
The Guild Project would include workshops and demonstrations in the industrial, craft and folk arts, complementing classes already on offer at AS220 Industries. I did a cyanotype workshop in the Print Shop while I was on my residency.

Providence was one of America’s first industrial cities, known for its textile, jewellery and silverware production.  Its manufacturing history has ensured there are numerous industrial and craft artists that live in the city or its surrounds.  Industry also brought in a sizeable immigrant population including folk artists.  Educational institutions such as the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and liberal arts college Brown University help to attract new artists to Providence and many choose to stay after graduating.  However, there is currently no space in downtown Providence dedicated to showcasing the state’s industrial, craft and folk artists.  The closest thing is RISD Works, a retail outlet in the college’s art museum that is only open to RISD faculty and alumni.  Many of Rhode Island’s industrial, craft and folk makers exhibit and sell outside of the state and are virtually unknown in Providence.  From Bert’s point of view, the time is ripe to address the invisibility of these artists in Providence.

Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art at the foot of College Hill, Providence.
Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art at the foot of College Hill, Providence.

The point of our research was to provide a foundation on which AS220 staff could build as they progress the Guild Project in the future.  My research included: considering the positive and negative aspects of medieval guilds; the historical context of guilds and/or unions in Rhode Island; potential collaborations with organisations such as RISD and Providence’s industrial arts incubator The Steel Yard; examining the goals of funding body ArtPlace America and how they tie in to both AS220’s current creative place-making activities and the Guild Project’s goals; the project’s relationship with Vision 2020; existing contemporary guild models; and compiling the beginnings of  a list of Rhode Island-based industrial, craft and folk artists.

A glass thread bowl by Providence-based glass artist Toots Zynskey on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
A glass thread bowl by Providence-based glass artist Toots Zynskey on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Guild Project is no longer just an idea.  Bert has his eye on a building to house the Guild space, whatever form that space takes, making it one step closer to reality.  276 Westminster Street (also known as the Roots Building) is only a couple of blocks from the rest of AS220’s three buildings.  AS220 has already expressed its interest in buying the building.  Mike, who is an architect, conducted a land use study of downtown Providence and considered how adding an arts venue on Westminster Street would complement existing activity.  We also searched local archives for heritage information relating to the building – when Bert briefed us on the project, he was insistent that the existing façade couldn’t be original.  Turns out he was right (see photographs below).

276 Westminster Street, Providence, as it looks today.
276 Westminster Street, Providence, as it looks today.
Goff & Darling Pianos occupied the original wooden building on the site of 276 Westminster Street, Providence, as seen on the right of this photograph taken from 1906.
Goff & Darling Pianos occupied the original wooden building on the site of 276 Westminster Street, Providence, as seen on the right of this photograph taken from 1906.
Taken in December 1940 by photographer Jack Delano, this photograph is the ‘money shot’ – it shows the original wooden façade replaced with an Art Deco-inspired frontage that was built in 1929.  It is currently unknown if the wooden façade was demolished or destroyed by fire.
Taken in December 1940 by photographer Jack Delano, this photograph is the ‘money shot’ – it shows the original wooden façade replaced with an Art Deco-inspired frontage that was built in 1929. It is currently unknown if the wooden façade was demolished or destroyed by fire.
This ‘modern’ façade, which is very similar to what can be seen today, replaced the building’s Art Deco look as early as 1951.  This photograph was taken in the 1970s when Westminster Street had been turned into a pedestrian mall.
This ‘modern’ façade, which is very similar to what can be seen today, replaced the building’s Art Deco look as early as 1951. This photograph was taken in the 1970s when Westminster Street had been turned into a pedestrian mall.

Jeremy Nowak, interim director of ArtPlace America, states that “A community is a process, not a static entity.”  The Guild Project is an opportunity for AS220 to continue the evolution of its creative community.  It’s an idea that has been percolating in Bert’s head for some years.  He has a talent for sniffing out a community in need and helping to fill the void.  His enthusiasm for folding a new creative community into AS220 is understandable … I mean, isn’t that what AS220 does?  Take risks?  Stretch itself?  Evolve in a fearless (and sometimes reckless) way?  That said, Bert would never pursue the project if his staff weren’t on board.  There are some questions to consider.  What about the existing commitments AS220 has?  Should the Guild Project be a priority?  The words I use to challenge myself spring to mind: grow or die.  Just how and when AS220 should grow is up for debate.  The day before I left Providence I outlined the Guild Project in AS220’s fortnightly staff meeting.  Now everyone is ‘in the know’ and can ponder these questions for themselves.  True to AS220’s DIY culture, the staff are probably more excited about the project’s opportunities than they are worried about any difficulties it might present.  There’s still a lot to talk about, though.  It’s early days yet.  Building community is a process, after all …

Hanging out at The Bar with some of AS220’s fabulous staff.  From left:  Cynthia, Bert, Susan, Jackie, Ruth, Leigh, Aaron, Lara and Phil.  You can read about their roles at: http://www.as220.org/about/staff/.
Hanging out at The Bar with some of AS220’s fabulous staff. From left: Cynthia, Bert, Susan, Jackie, Ruth, Leigh, Aaron, Lara and Phil. You can read about their roles at: http://www.as220.org/about/staff/.

So, all that’s left is to thank the people who have made us so welcome and folded us so completely into their creative community.  A profound thank you to all AS220’s talented, energetic, committed staff – you do such brilliant work.  And to Bert and Susan … [uh oh, here come the tears again] … thank you for sharing your lives with us.  You are extraordinary people.  What can we say?  We love you guys and we’ll never forget our time with you.

Bert, Susan and I on the steps of their house.
Bert, Susan and I on the steps of their house.

Ruth would also like to gratefully acknowledge Creative New Zealand in generously supporting her AS220 Administrative Residency.  In collaboration with National Services Te Paerangi, she will also be speaking at several venues nationally about her experiences at AS220 – contact Ruth on harveyr@npdc.govt.nz for more information.