Artscape: The Avenue Concept: Bringing Art to the Streets

May 30, 2013

In Providence, the organization, the Avenue Concept wants to clean up the city’s streets, and spray paint them.

The group believes that graffiti can be art, and wants to get the city’s street-artists to fill, what they see as the void, of public art in Rhode Island’s creative capital.

For this month’s Artscape, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender visited the Avenue Concept at their space on Providence’s South Side.

The Avenue Concept building in South Providence
Credit John Bender / RIPR

Walking through any city, graffiti can just blend into the background.  At its worst it is vulgar or even gang related.  For those instances the city of Providence retains a graffiti task force.  They drive throughout the city of Providence “rolling” or painting over the city’s spray painted walls.  But some believe that Providence has yet to see graffiti at its best.

“People that don’t really get to know the art form as art; like anything if you don’t take the time to understand it, you can come to quick conclusions.”

That’s Yarrow Thorne the founder of the Providence organization, The Avenue Concept.  He and his organization work with the city to create spaces where artists can spray paint walls legally.  Surprisingly Thorne does not make graffiti himself.

“The funny thing is I’m actually not an artist, I’m an organizer, and facilitator, and I take a lot of pleasure helping people solve problems.”

But what exactly are these problems?  Thorne believes that while Providence bills itself as the creative capital, the city is hesitant to support graffiti as public art.

“Providence is the creative capital, but there’s almost no public art.  You know the city sells itself to all these artists that live here, and why aren’t there sculptures on every corner, why aren’t there buildings painted that are two stories tall?”

Yarrow believes there are a few reasons why people are hesitant to support graffiti as public art:

For one, graffiti does have a decidedly dodgy side, said Thorne.

“It’s not all positive, I’m not going to lie about that, there are a lot of people that definitely destroy buildings in Providence, part of the culture is to act up and retaliate a bunch, and that definitely doesn’t help.”

There’s also the issue that people simply don’t want to be stuck with public street art for a long time, especially if they don’t like it.  But the Avenue Concept has a solution to that problem with what they call “Revolving Walls.”

“We want walls to change.  We want someone to walk to work one morning, and see this amazing piece of art, and next week to come walk down the same street and see totally new art.”

Thorne also said that because of the many neighborhood organizations in Providence, it’s especially important for centralized government support.

“College hill neighborhood association, Fox Point neighborhood association, Hope street organization, WBNA, all of those groups have their own boards, own directors, own committees, their own everything, and it’s very difficult for anything to ever get done.”

But Thorne is determined.  He comes from Northampton Massachusetts where he watched firsthand as the city transformed from an old mill town to a thriving cultural area in the late 70’s.

“My parents were very involved with the transformation of North Hampton as a city, I think that’s where a lot of this urban planning, and not taking ‘no’ for an answer came from.”

His tenacity is coupled with a growing public interest street art.  One of the most famous street artists in the world, Banksy, has work commissioned by cities, and has sold art for tens of thousands of dollars. 

Despite what Thorne perceives as Providence’s slow uptake, he is determined to stay.

“Everyone said you should go to Philadelphia or Toronto or all these other cities that really embrace public art, and I keep saying no, I want to stay in Rhode Island.  I want to create it here; there’s a lot of open opportunities here because nothing’s really been painted.”

But some things are being painted, and Thorne’s resolve has led to the first partnership with the Department of Transportation.  After five years of planning, artists working with the Avenue Concept painted a one-hundred forty-foot wall on Westminster Street one weekend in April.

Thorne admits that things can be different when you’re no longer illegally painting walls in the dead of night, acknowledges something may be lost when art meant to comment on “the man” begins working for said “man.”

“You have to follow a basic set of guidelines, but that’s part of being part of society, and making public art, you know?  You have to work with people.”

What exactly are those guidelines?

“The avenue concept has a basic set of rules, and that’s positive art, things that are colorful and interesting to look at, no gangs, no drugs, no violence, no weapons, nothing vulgar.”

Despite the rules, Thorne said he’s never worked with any artists who are unwilling to accommodate.  What’s more, many of them believe whole-heartedly in his vision. 

A graffiti artist, who has worked with the Avenue Concept, and wishes to remain anonymous, said Thorne acts as a liaison between the artists and the public.

“The general consensus is that he’s trying to put a positive light on the graffiti scene, to let the community, and the people know that there’s something out there other than a kid writing on your mailbox in the neighborhood.

And those rules about positive art seem to pay off.  When Yarrow Thorne bought the Avenue Concept building on Lockwood Street in South Providence, he said the area used to be plagued by destructive graffiti.

“The outside of the building and the property has been transformed slowly using urban art.  We’ve had a lot of the negative tagging on about four city blocks stop when we started allowing people to paint the building.”

This gets to the heart of what the Avenue Concept is really all about: building communities within the city of Providence, and creating spaces where people feel safe and welcome to explore their city.