AS220 began in 1985 with a budget of $800 in a one-room space above the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) at 220 Weybosset Street. From this humble start came our name and mission. “AS” signifies “Artists’ Space” as well as “Alternative Space” and “220” refers to the initial address. AS220 quickly outgrew the one room over PPAC and rented space nearby on Richmond Street, where the organization began to fashion the services that would become its hallmark: performance and exhibition opportunities for artists of every genre, affordable artists’ studios, and youth outreach.
In 1992, AS220 embarked on an effort to own a home of its own in downtown Providence. We acquired a 21,000 sq ft three story building at 95-121 Empire Street that was severely blighted and almost totally abandoned. By the following year, we achieved code compliance and 100% occupancy, with Groundworks Dance Company, Perishable Theatre, and a number of resident artists helping to fill every room. This was accomplished with a limited budget of $1.2 million, tremendous community support, highly imaginative fundraising, and most significantly, sweat equity. What was once an almost lifeless block in downtown Providence is today a thriving mixed-use arts complex and a destination for an estimated 93,000 people each year. The project was one of the first significant steps in the creation of the Providence Arts and Entertainment District.
Between 2003 and September 2006, $2 million was raised during AS220’s Capital Campaign, funding further improvements to the Empire Street complex, including: restoration of the façade, expansion of the street level performance space and gallery, upgrades to the street level HVAC and electrical systems, sound and lighting improvements, and the creation of separate venues for food and beverage, AS220’s bar and restaurant.
In 2006, AS220 purchased the Dreyfus Hotel, located at the corner of Washington St and Mathewson St in downtown Providence, from Johnson & Wales University. AS220’s rehabilitation of the Dreyfus, a structure dating back to the late 1890’s, was undertaken as a historic preservation project. By May 2007, the 24,000 sq ft building was fully restored and fully occupied. The Dreyfus, AS220’s second mixed-use complex, is today home to fourteen affordable residential studios and four work studios for artists as well as AS220’s administrative offices. Local 121, an upscale farm-to-table restaurant, and the AS220 Project Space Gallery occupy the building’s first floor commercial spaces.
AS220 works within a unique sustainability model that leverages earned income as part of a diverse funding base. A number of our programs, the AS220 Industries: The Community Print Shop, AS220 Labs, and AS220 Media Arts strive to partly or fully fund their daily operations through individual memberships to the facilities, classes, contracted work, the sale of original artworks, and the innovative initiatives of dedicated program leaders and members. Similarly, AS220’s Performance Space at 115vEmpire St is partially sustained through income from our restaurant, Foo(d), and The Bar at AS220.
The AS220 Youth Studio, formerly located in South Providence and now housed in our Empire Street building, makes art accessible to young people through a variety of courses including: drawing, painting, digital recording, dance, hip-hop, poetry, photography, music, digital fabrication, and computer classes. Approximately two-dozen classes are offered each week free of charge to young people between the ages of 14 and 20.
AS220 also pioneered an arts immersion program at the Rhode Island Training School (RITS), the state’s juvenile detention center, offering an additional 10-12 workshops each week within the facility’s walls. This exposure to the arts taps into an often-overlooked creative potential, offering a powerful alternative for these young people. Upon release from the RITS, the AS220 Youth Studio at Empire Street offers young people the opportunity to continue their experience with the arts alongside a team who has become familiar with their needs and talents.
In 2008, AS220 purchased a third downtown building, the Mercantile Block, located at 131 Washington Street and directly abutting the Dreyfus. This four-story plus basement building totals 50,000 sq ft. AS220’s adaptive re-use of the historic Mercantile Block provides for a vibrant mix of live and work studios, arts related offices, and one-of-a kind, local retail and commercial spaces.
The third and fourth floors of the building offer 22 live and work studios for the creative community. On the second floor, a mix of individual work studios, non-profit office space, and AS220 program space co-mingle. Two long time tenants, Clark the Locksmith and The Stable bar, continue their tenancy in renovated storefronts on the Mercantile’s first floor, where they are now joined by local restaurant, Viva Mexico!. The AS220 Community Printshop and AS220 Labs relocated to the building in greatly expanded bi-level spaces from their respective former homes at the Dreyfus and Empire Street Complex.
AS220 continues to expand and transform to meet the needs of Rhode Island’s creative community. In January 2012, Perishable Theatre, an original tenant of the Empire Street Complex, transferred stewardship of the theatre and dance studio at 95 Empire St to AS220. As an AS220 initiative, 95 Empire continues to support new and emerging companies through its Residency@95 program and a vibrant late night event series, while offering affordable education in theatre arts and access to the resources of a theater and dance studio to the community-at-large. In March 2012, the organization announced that another new initiative, expanding on AS220’s photography program, would find a home at the Mercantile Block. In the AS220 Media Arts studio, digital photography, studio lighting, and photo finishing resources will grow to support artists working in complementary analog and digital mediums such as video, film, and audio.