A New Challenge

by by by Ana Alvarez

A brief history of local art in the ‘Creative Capital’

It is time we artists stop harboring false hopes and come to terms with the present deteriorating situation in the arts. We must unite and challenge the entrenched assumptions and premises that now pervade our entire culture. We ourselves must give impetus to solving the problems that confront us today.” So begins the “New Challenge,” a short but defiant document penned in 1982 by Providence artists Umberto Crenca, Steven Emma, and Martha Dempster. All three were disgruntled by their experiences with censorship and elitist favoritism in the contemporary art world. For them, art was no longer “an integral part of [their] society and [had] been relegated to mere processes,” leading to art that was lifeless and stripped of meaning. They were also discontented with the “discriminatory practices of hierarchically interconnected” art associations including galleries, schools, and museums that continually “reek of favoritism.” Instead they wanted to make art that wasn’t valued solely by its technical skill and that didn’t need to be legitimized by an art degree. They wanted to produce work that was “complete, unbridled, [and] uncensored,” whatever form that expression might take. Their grievances against the hierarchical oppression of free expression are the first, and perhaps only, art manifesto ever produced in Providence.

That year, Crenca and his friends set out to act out what their manifesto had professed; they took up residence in the bare and decaying studio on 220 Weybossett Street. Their goal was to create a place where artists could collaborate and congregate. A place where artistic expression would be uninterrupted by the tainted art market hierarchy. They named the studio “Alternative Space 220,” today simply known as AS220 and considered the cornerstone of uncensored artistic expression in Providence. Essential to the organization’s mission is the promise to provide artists with affordable space to both live and work in. As AS220’s history shows, a necessary factor in cultivating an artistic community is cheap space—all it took was one empty downtown studio to turn a couple of artists with a livened manifesto into a thriving, creative community.

Perhaps taking up Crenca’s challenge, in the 1900s young artists began to flock to Olneyville, a neighborhood located in the outskirts of Providence, to find haven. Back in the 1800s, Olneyville, with its abounding paper and textile mills, was considered the heart of Rhode Island industry. Yet after the second World War, industry dried up—the companies moved down South, the residents emigrated, and all that was left were the vacant and now abandoned factories and mills. Unable to afford studio space in the city, artist began to call Olneyville’s forgotten edifices home. Decades after the “New Challenge”, Olneyville has turned into the hub of underground, alternative art activity that Crenca envisioned.

Olneyville’s most infamous artistic enclave is now its most regrettable loss. The legendary Fort Thunder was founded by a handful of RISD dropouts in the mid 1990s, including now well-established artists Mat Brinkman and Brian Chippendale, and soon became the anchor of the Providence underground art scene. Situated in an abandoned brick building on Olneyville’s Eagle Square, the Fort illegally housed over ten artists and musicians, along with studio and performance spaces. They produced alternative comics, made raucous rock music, and held events like bike parades and costumed wrestling matches.

But sadly for Providence’s art community, the dream of Fort Thunder was short lived. After gaining more press with an editorial in Nest Magazine and being featured in the 2002 Whitney Bienniale, news came that Fort Thunder’s days were numbered. Since the late 1990s, developers with plans to revamp Olneyville had set their sights on Fort Thunder as the location for a new supermarket. Uproar ensued as artists and community members, including Crenca, identified the importance and rarity of this artist collective and fought for its survival. Regardless of their struggle, in May 2002 Fort Thunder fell to bulldozers that cleared the abandoned buildings of Eagle Square, setting up strip mall in its wake. Even after its demise, the spirit of the Fort lives on in similar Olneyville art collectives, such as the feminist-art cohort the Dirt Palace or the Hilarious Attic. However, to those working within the community, the closing of Fort Thunder marked the end of an era.

The demolition was almost ten years ago. Since then, much has changed. For one, undoubtedly to Crenca’s disappointment, the RISD Museum mounted an exhibition of Olneyville screenprints, raising Fort Thunder out from its underground grave and uncomfortably positioning it into the institutionalized walls of a museum. And what of Olneyville’s up-and-coming status as development hotspot? After the recent economic downturns, with the exception of scattered and seemingly unrelated development projects, it seems to have stalled indefinitely.

But most importantly, after driving out what was perhaps the most unique and stirring artistic uprising this city has ever seen, Providence has little credence in calling itself the nation’s “Creative Capital”. Although the Providence’s Arts, Culture and Tourism Department claims to prioritize making affordable living space available to artists as a way to preserve the “vital” arts community, artist still find it difficult to hold down a studio, even in Olneyville.

Buck Hastings, a painter who owns a studio in reappropriated factory space on Harris Avenue in Olneyville, said the reason why he stayed around Providence after graduating from RISD was because, at first, it seemed to provide affordable studio spaces that wouldn’t be attainable if he were to go to New York or LA. Yet this, he says is a double-edged sword. The cheap rent in Olneyville is not there to attract artists, as the local Providence government seems to suggest; instead it is a symptom of a recessed economy where many people can’t find jobs, much less buy art. This makes maintaining a sustainable art community hardly feasible. In Hastings’s case, even with waiting tables and successfully garnering commissions, he is not sure how much longer he will be able keep his studio.

Painter Shawn Gilheeney, who also has a studio on Harris Avenue, voices similar concerns. To him, even with the strong support within the artistic community, Providence doesn’t offer nearly enough opportunity to show and sell local art. Art dealer Sara Agniel, who Gilheeney says is one of the few gallery owners in the city to show any interest in local contemporary art, said that the idea of Providence as being a Renaissance city is misfounded. In an interview with the Phoenix, she said if artists cannot even find affordable spaces and a source of sustainable income, then, "what we’re selling is a concept that doesn’t exist."

Still, there is a silver lining. Gilheeney explains that, unlike in other well-established art centers, “money is ultimately not driving the creative process here. It feels more organic.” And this perhaps is the best iteration of Crenca’s challenge—even thirty years later, artists in Providence continue the New Challenge’s call to let art flourish for its own sake.

ANA ALVAREZ B’13 hopes to join the Dirt Palace one day.