Richard Benge, Phillipa Tocker, Briar Monro, Theresa Heinz Housel3 March 2014

Growing up in Northeast Ohio, my only exposure to a community creative space was a small craft shop in the Wooster city centre. The shop sold crafts made by disabled people enrolled in the Nick Amster Workshop, a private, non-profit organisation that helps adults with developmental disabilities obtain vocational and life management skills.

The Nick Amster service was forward-thinking at the time because people with learning disability were not a part of the community in 1980s’ small-town Ohio. Now, in the United States and other countries such as New Zealand, creative spaces are leading the way for disabled people to have equitable access to arts experiences.

Being an American migrant to New Zealand, I am particularly interested in how arts access organisations can assist one another across geographical boundaries. To this end, I observed a video conference on 28 February at the United States Embassy in Wellington that included representatives from AS220, a non-profit arts access organisation based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Google Hangout conferenceAlso participating in Arts Access Aotearoa’s conference were participants in its pilot mentoring project, along with invited guests, Arts Access Aotearoa staff and United States Embassy staff.

Established by artist Bert Crenca in 1985, AS220 is guided by the principle that although everyone possesses creative instincts, not all have equal access to the arts. Bert first described AS220’s objectives to a New Zealand audience when he was a keynote speaker at the 2012 Museums Aotearoa Conference in Wellington.

AS220 offers creative opportunities across multiple media to everyone, regardless of income or ability. Housed across three buildings in downtown Providence, AS220 operates a restaurant/bar. This often serves as the entry point for people to learn about AS220’s initiatives, which includes an art gallery, performance space, youth programmes, theatre and dance facilities, and even communal and loft living spaces for artists. 

Revitalising a city

Providence’s city centre, like many others in the United States, has a history of economic struggle stemming from factory closures, violent crime often centred around gang activity, racial tensions, and white flight to the suburbs. As Bert noted, “Providence was a desperate city and the downtown area was empty in 1982.”

Bert and fellow artists saw artistic possibility despite the city’s struggles. They founded AS220 in a former strip club that was a locus for prostitution and drug dealing. Now, AS220 has 60 employees and multiple partnerships that operate under a US$4.1 million budget.

AS220’s activist orientation helps ensure that uncensored arts can flourish in a democratic, supportive and uplifting environment. As Bert explained during the video conference, AS220’s investment in downtown Providence has inspired the area’s community resurgence as more businesses and residents move there.

Google Hangout video conferenceAS220 demonstrates how creative spaces can regenerate decaying city centres. Shortly before I left Michigan, Detroit filed the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy with debt exceeding US$18 billion. The city’s population has declined from 1.8 million in 1950 to 700,000 people living today in an almost deserted cityscape with boarded-up buildings and streets without municipal lighting.

The arts can play a powerful role in countering urban desolation. Federal grants and various non-profit initiatives in Detroit such as Write-A-House are helping artists and others renovate abandoned homes to revitalise neighbourhoods. Artist activists are also creating urban gardens and murals in vacant city spaces.

As Bert points out, when people access art without limitations, the creative investment transcends the individual level and benefits the wider community.

Teresa Heinz Housel is an American journalist and volunteer writer at Arts Access Aotearoa.




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