Culture » Visual Arts

The Rhode to renaissance

The drivers of Providence, R.I.'s artistic awakening prepare to teach the Springs a thing or two



In the 1980s, downtown Providence, R.I., teemed with abandoned warehouses and seedy porn shops. Prostitutes solicited openly, walking the main streets. The decaying city, on the whole, was regarded as the "armpit of New England."

"At that time in Providence's history," says Umberto Crenca, now 61, "downtown was a mess. It was at the lowest ebb in its entire history, as a city."

Crenca did something about it. It began with a manifesto he wrote with friends after his art show was panned by a local newspaper critic. He wanted to create an enterprise for uncensored, unjuried art, open to everyone. But Crenca, known as "Bert," and noticeable with his long, white goatee, took it further.

He and fellow artists began "occupying" abandoned buildings to build studios and galleries. The first, where they stayed for about six months — without formal city permission, but certainly with city knowledge — was located on 220 Weybosset Street. They named their "alternative space" AS220.

The project grew, and in 1992, Crenca and crew targeted a far larger abandoned building on troubled Empire Street. Now with the hard-earned backing of Providence city government, they brought the building up to code. Neighboring projects followed over the ensuing two decades. Today, AS220 encompasses about 95,000 square feet of artist living spaces, galleries, theaters, a print shop, a photo lab and a thriving café and bar.

"In 1991, before we renovated our first building, our annual budget was $70,000 and they paid one staff person making $9,000, and that was me," says Crenca. "And I paid a large part of that back to AS220 for rent for my studio.

"Today we're a $2.8 million budget ... that employs over 50 people. And we own three buildings downtown that represent $25 million in investment in renovating essentially abandoned buildings in downtown Providence."

Crenca, officially AS220's co-founder and artistic director, simply brought new life into a 350-year-old city. He serves on many boards, and says he's approached weekly by others who want advice on starting up something artistic of their own.

Businesses now want to set up shop in Providence. 38 Studios, the video game company headed by ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, is headquartered across the street from AS220's Empire Street building. The city of 200,000 also enjoys national attention for its festivals, numerous professional theater companies and vibrant culture scene. The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that more than 1 million people annually visit the city's WaterFire festival, in which musicians and artists perform outdoors next to bonfires sent adrift on Providence's three rivers.

New England's armpit now dubs itself the "creative capital."

Where talent wants to be

Providence's renaissance, though dramatic, is but one case study in "creative placemaking." According to a 2010 NEA report, such creative placemaking works well when "partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city or region around arts and cultural activities."

The report adds that a culturally vibrant community is attractive to investors and skilled workers from the outside, and helps recirculate local resident income at a higher rate.

Crenca knows it well: "Where talent — and that includes corporate talent — where talent wants to be is where there are certain amenities and a certain kind of cultural vitality and cultural life.

"If you want to continue to maintain a competitive edge, you need to think very holistically around what the community offers to the innovators, the start-ups, the venture capitalists. What is it they want? Where do they want to live?"

He goes on: "People want to live in vital cities that have diversity, that have a variety of choices — whether it be restaurants and cuisine or in cultural events. They want to go to cultural events that cost $5, and they want to go to cultural events that cost $100. They want experimental and funky and underground, and they want traditional and predictable."

The NEA's report looks at large-scale locales like Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Phoenix, as well as smaller communities like Paducah, Ky., Arnaudville, La., and the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota. Each location has employed unique strategies for success, which the NEA measures as having "produced gains in livability and sustainability as well as new jobs and/or economic activity."

Take Paducah, a metro area of about 100,000, and its Artist Relocation Program, where 80 properties were revamped, and 20 new ones built, by artists looking to rehabilitate its troubled Lowertown neighborhood. Through rezoning, subsidies and $30 million in grants, the restorations have been a success, rewarding the city with a 10-to-1 return on the investment a decade later.

It's attractive, then, to imagine a creative blossoming in Colorado Springs. It's why the Independent and the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC are hosting Crenca and Lynne McCormack, 47-year-old director of Providence's Department of Art, Culture + Tourism on Monday, April 30 at the Antlers Hilton. The pair will speak at a public luncheon on Providence's own success story, and suggest ways the Springs can nurture the arts into an economic driver.

Though the idea is "in vogue" now, says Susan Edmondson, executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation, it's been happening for a few decades in other cities.

"All those big-picture things don't happen in one year, or two years," she says, "and now they're starting to pay off huge. So we're a little behind. It would have been nice if we had had an ethos around this 30 years ago to see what the results would be now.

"But we're also doing some really cool things, and we have some good creative assets to start with it. So I think we can catch up if we put our minds to it."

A rising tide

Edmondson says the Springs is in a "baby, toddler stage" with creative placemaking. But she notes we have plenty to work with. The local arts scene comprises high-level institutions like the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Pikes Peak Center, as well as a bevy of galleries, nightly live music, festivals and an array of arts organizations like the Colorado Springs Conservatory, the Colorado Springs Chorale and Ormao Dance Company.

At the nexus lies the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR), a nonprofit that works with the city to promote and support the arts. Formed in 2006, COPPeR has recently issued two important initiatives: creating a comprehensive cultural plan in 2010, and launching the Peak Arts Fund earlier this year. Both underline COPPeR's holistic approach.

The Cultural Plan outlines five main goals and the recommended action steps needed to achieve them, along with statistics and surveys taken from the community. It has outlined short-term, mid-term and years-long goals that cover everything from better marketing strategies, to expanding arts curricula in schools, to Goal 2, Objective 2: "Define the arts and cultural sector as an economic driver and grow creative industries."

The recently launched Peak Arts Fund mission is to raise money for 15 local arts nonprofits (such as the Business of Art Center, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, and Imagination Celebration). All donations go toward the chosen organizations, but donors cannot earmark a specific group — the Fund is "designed to strengthen many arts organizations at once," according to its literature.

COPPeR executive director Christina McGrath, 27, won't disclose how much the Fund has accrued until the end of the donation period on May 1, but says it's moving toward its goal of 1,500 donors, and adds that its very existence is encouraging.

"Arts have always been a big part of Colorado Springs, but we haven't always been great about talking about the arts or promoting the arts," she says. "And so I think there's been a shift more recently where all the arts groups are doing a better job of coming together to say, 'Arts are important.' And definitely when you get people together through a thing like the Peak Arts Fund, your voice is a little bit louder than just one arts organization saying, 'We're important, support us.'"

Other organizations like the Downtown Partnership and the Downtown Development Authority are working to implement structures and foundations for an even bigger-bodied cultural climate. Last month, the DDA secured a certification of "emerging creative district" by Colorado Creative Industries, part of the state's Office of Economic Development. Downtown (technically labeled the DDA) received a $2,000 grant, technical assistance from the CCI and the opportunity to work with the 15 other emerging creative districts throughout the state to build up the culture.

Ivywild ideas

Interestingly, the most concrete artistic rallying point is outside the Springs' downtown.

That would be the 39,000-square-foot Ivywild Project, a former elementary school on South Cascade Avenue that's being converted into a complex housing Bristol Brewing Co., community gardens, a venue for live music and events, a bakery and a bar devoted to espresso and Colorado small-batch spirits. Preliminary construction is already underway, with Bristol beerocrat Laura Long saying the brewery should be moved in by early 2013. She adds that its founders hope to cultivate an "Ivywild District."

"That's not a project that's 'art' with a capital 'A,'" Edmondson says. "[But] it's creative and it's neighborhood-based and it's engaging the community."

In that sense, Ivywild actually nicely embodies what the NEA considers the most contemporary form of creative placemaking, in which a more "decentralized portfolio of spaces [acts] as creative crucibles." Edmondson notes that people usually connect with art for the first time close to home, in a neighborhood or at school as part of daily life. Once the creative spark is lit, then they will be motivated to visit the big museum in the city center.

"I often say, if I win the lottery, if I have $20 million, I wouldn't build one big complex," Edmondson says. "I would build 10, $1 million complexes in neighborhoods all over the community and do it that way, and give some resources to keep them going."

For now, though, Ivywild as planned is the only site of its kind in the city. Otherwise, much of the attention seems directed toward downtown.

Downtown revival plans, of course, have come and gone for years. Chuck Murphy's envisioned arts district near Marmalade at Smokebrush lives on as a dream, without financing. Other concepts for the areas around the railroad tracks and America the Beautiful Park have faded, including the ambitious Palmer Village, which hinged on a doomed Embassy Suites hotel.

But Robert Shonkwiler, who played a large part in Boulder's Pearl Street Mall and now serves on the Urban Renewal Authority Board, among other positions, has designed a mixed-use plan for the vacant lot along Pikes Peak Avenue near the Antlers Hilton (see "Push continues for a different look downtown," City Sage, April 5). And other ideas include construction of a children's museum ("If you dream it ..." News, March 8), or an Olympic Hall of Fame and museum, or a sports stadium — the last two having been floated by Mayor Steve Bach.

"Revitalizing our downtown is essential to the success of our community as is a vibrant arts community," Bach says. "And that's not to say that art is strictly defined to downtown. It's not. But if we can build a more vibrant arts community in the core, then I think that serves as a germination for what we can do elsewhere."

Bach, who says he personally has a great appreciation for the arts, sees culture flourishing here through his main objectives of creating jobs, transforming city government and building community. He says his office currently seeks to help the arts by working on potential roadblocks, unglamorous stuff like making permitting and licensing faster and easier to obtain. (Bach did get involved with Ivywild, and even had a public spat with the Urban Renewal Board in the final days of city discussions on the project; while opinions vary on whether his administration actually helped, he says he was working to prevent overcharging of fees.)

"When you think about artists, generally speaking — not formally, but generally — they're not necessarily experienced business people, and so I don't think they oftentimes know the ropes of how to get things done," Bach says. "So we need to be as supportive as we can be as a city government."

City of angels?

Of course, every city — and every city government — is different.

The city of Providence helped Crenca's projects with financing and loans, and even waived a million dollars of debt toward the purchase of one building. For decades, mayors saw the value of the organization, and invested in it.

In contrast to Providence's leaders, Bach doesn't need someone to come in and clean up loads of abandoned warehouses downtown. Nor does he have an electorate likely to favor some of the public-funding ideas, such as the $200,000 loan from the city that helped start AS220.

But Bach is encouraging artists to work with his Downtown Solutions Team, or hook up with the Business Improvement District, the Downtown Partnership or COPPeR. He is asking for input: "I need help with understanding what are the gaps, what are the challenges, what are the needs of the arts community that are not being filled in terms of support."

The mayor adds that he's reaching out to "angel investors," here, and outside the city, to help fund projects and organizations, which will hopefully lead to jobs.

"I remember meeting a lot of young artists when I was at Looart [Press] and they had tremendous talent, they just needed help getting started — including financially," he says of his time as director of marketing for the company, which later became Current, Inc. "And so if we can be successful in attracting angel investors for the arts, then I think that would be another important way we can help."

If Bach is making these overtures toward the art community, McCormack says, that's huge. And artists would do well to answer. In fact, Crenca says that in general, it's "inexcusable" for artists not to talk to the government about big projects.

"Some people look at AS220 as a pretty radical organization, [but] there's no way we could have accomplished the things we've done if the city didn't engage with us, take some risk with us; and the planning department, the mayor of the city, the banking and the financial community, the press ... we have relationships all the way to our legislators in Washington."

That's one reason Colorado Springs has fallen behind, according to Edmondson: People of influence in this town haven't enjoyed relationships with artistic leaders.

"Granted, we, as a city, haven't built a new community center in a while, but when you do, oh my gosh, you need the creative space just as much as you need that basketball court," Edmondson says. "And I think too much in the past, without that creative person at the table, we never even really thought that way."

So, let's say everyone's finally at the table, or at least invited to it. There's a willingness, a talent set and a bit of money. What's next?

Well, that's basically why people are looking forward to this visit from McCormack and Crenca. It's not that in talking about Providence, they'll gift us the perfect blueprint for Colorado Springs; as Edmondson puts it, "It isn't about the one and only festival that will be the silver bullet, or the one and only space that will be the silver bullet." In fact, one of the few pieces of advice Crenca will offer as a preview over the phone is for artists to embrace something of a grab-bag approach — to stretch dollars and hours as best they can, and just make ... more.

"The more that's generated," says Crenca, "the more people are willing to invest, the more you create destinations, the more you create a scene, the more sustainable it is in the long run."

At the Chamber luncheon, and at a bunch of private meetings with local movers and shakers, McCormack and Crenca will talk about big ideas and the minutiae of daily operations. Bach himself says he's looking forward to learning best practices from them.

And they'll ensure that those people at the table are talking to one another.

"It definitely takes individuals," Crenca says. "You can't just plop an idea into a community. Each community's political situation, the dynamics, the demographics, they're all different. And that matters.

"And so, however it needs to be done in Colorado Springs has to be crafted accordingly. Can you learn from a place like AS220 and Providence? Absolutely. We're cooking over here. It's an extremely dynamic art and culture community; it has a huge impact on the quality of life for everyone that lives in this town."

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