Art visionary brings Providence to province

When Ruth Harvey visited a thriving arts setup in Rhode Island, she found it so inspiring she was often close to tears.

The Puke Ariki curator of pictorial collections had been calling on art galleries and museums throughout the United States during her 2010 Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship, but it was an art organisation called AS220 that moved her the most.

Now, the founder of AS220, a charismatic yet down-to-earth man called Umberto Crenca, is coming to Taranaki on Friday.

"He was the first person I met when I went to AS220. He me at the door wearing a hard hat, paint- splattered T-shirt and shorts."

To get a handle on what AS220 is, Harvey first explains the name. AS stands for "alternative space" and the 220 is the number of organisation's first street address.

"AS220 is an unjuried, uncensored forum for the arts. It's part incubator and part bazaar."

All the staff are paid the same amount, including Bert, and cottage industries plus a bar and restaurant raise funds for making art, running courses and workshops. It boasts a print room, dark room, fabrication unit, sound- mixing studio, performance space and art gallery.

Harvey says downtown Providence was quite industrial, with a lot of unused warehouses. AS220 restored many of these to heritage standards and put commercial tenants on the ground floors to subsidise artists' studios above.

The result is a seriously hands- on arts organisation that supports its creative community to perform, exhibit, make and sell in the heart of Providence. "In Bert's own words, it's 'responsive, humble and ambitious'. AS220 grew out of a desire to make a community that made sense to him.

"The actions he has taken has enabled him to do that, along with the other amazing staff at AS220."

Even more inspiring was the group's youth programme, initially created to help young offenders who had come out of "Juvenile Hall", but is now available to all Rhode Island youth.

"The programme started off being in the Rhode Island Training School, but now it's extended to AS220 Youth, a special studio space that young people have access to - all young people - where they can come and learn creative skills," Harvey says.

But Bert learned that offering courses for young people wasn't enough.

"He thought art could save the world, but what he discovered was that when kids don't have anywhere to live or enough food, art is not enough."

So AS220 extended the programme to provide live-in spaces for at-risk youth and AS220 staff mentors are on hand to help them out. These mentors offer support with simple things such as getting them to appointments and buying bus tickets - things a family member might usually help them with.

Harvey says she wants people to see is what can be achieved from "the most humble of beginnings".

"AS220 had $800 when they started. Now they are the life and soul of downtown Providence.

"I hope Bert will show us what's possible outside the standard institutional model," she says.

zUmberto Crenca will speak at the Puke Ariki foyer at 6pm on Friday.

Taranaki Daily News