UP3 - Save Art Space: Redefining the Urban Landscape

Written by Parker Stone

Many artists dream of seeing their work plastered across the side of a building. Justin Aversano and Travis Rix, co-founders of SaveArtSpace, are the catalysts for that dream’s fruition. SaveArtSpace, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, seeks to disrupt the ceaseless stream of advertisements characteristic of our era, by providing communities with billboard takeovers curated with original art. The non-profit operates on a collection of donations from individuals and other foundations, submission fees, and corporate partnerships. Utilizing these funds, SAS acquires billboards and ad spaces, recruiting local curators to decide on featured artists for their behemoth facades.

To date, the foundation has transformed over 200 billboards, showcasing nearly 170 artists’ work. The reach has a lasting impact on the artists and communities served. Rix noted, “we try to work with everyone, including cities and businesses. If they want to work with us, great. If not, we’re still going to do it anyway – that’s always been the SAS way.” The team also pairs experienced artists with emerging artists, further deepening the positive impact of the program.

Rix noted, “we try to work with everyone, including cities and businesses. If they want to work with us, great. If not, we’re still going to do it anyway – that’s always been the SAS way.”

As graduates of School of Visual Arts, Aversano and Rix possess a deep understanding of the crucial relationship between art and community. Using photography and painting as mediums, the two produce moving works, each incorporating different subjects and forms. While each has developed their own style, both target focal points around humanity’s impact on the world.

Rix, the organization’s CEO, creates art rooted in still life and focused on landscapes, rural and urban alike. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, his style and love for the ever-changing landscape can be seen in both his neighborhood paintings and photographs. One of his earlier photographic projects, This Port-a-Potty Is the First Sign Things Are Going to Change, highlighted the fact that portable restroom facilities are often the first step in establishing a construction site. From there, the inevitable forces of gentrification take shape, whether through demolition or construction.

“I focus on things that are going to change, especially in Detroit and Flint and Bushwick. I would take a picture with my phone and go home and paint it. I did that for two to three years, maybe more, until I [moved to Detroit.] I do something similar in Detroit because they’re demolishing 100 buildings a week now; they’re abandoned and being torn down.”

Aversano, self-titled Chief Creative Officer, gravitates more towards human subjects and surrealism. “Art has a lot to do with the mysticism and mystery of the visions we have and how to make them into a reality,” Aversano explained. “Magic is a part of making art.” His current project, Smoke and Mirrors, is a collection of Polaroid, 35mm, and 4×5 stills of astrologers, psychics, tarot readers, and other forms of mystics. He transforms the photographs into different tarot card symbols that he and his subject feel best represents them.

“Art has a lot to do with the mysticism and mystery of the visions we have and how to make them into a reality,” Aversano explained. “Magic is a part of making art.”

Soon after graduation, the two watched their Bushwick neighborhood transform from a center of street art and charm, to a landscape ripe with large-scale advertisements. They began to question what they could do to combat the new and rather unpleasant scenery. “We didn’t think it was what people wanted to look at when they walked around,” said Rix. “We wanted to combat the corporate consumption of these ad spaces and give a voice back to the artist.”

As they discussed their desire to participate in 2015’s Bushwick Open Studios, the pair soon realized they longed for a broader reach. Saddened by the loss of artistic murals that once decorated their Brooklyn neighborhood, they took a stand.  “Let’s do public art,” Aversano declared. “Let’s do billboards.”

The SVA alumni began researching what it would take to buy back the advertising canvases that were devouring their neighborhood’s landscape. They contacted businesses and billboard companies. Together, Aversano and Rix raised the funds needed to buy up these segments. By 2015, SaveArtSpace was founded.

Rix laughed while recalling who devised the original idea. “[Aversano] will say he did,” Rix stated, “I’ll tell you it was me. Honestly, I’ve had the idea since 2012 or 2013. I thought about putting commercials for the environment on TV or in ad space, because you never see advertising for the environment.”

Aversano recounted the story of a Bushwick middle school student and their mother. The mother had been worried about the child’s budding artistic interest, believing that her child needed to focus on traditionally academic subjects. At the sight of her child’s artwork beaming across Flushing Avenue, the mother broke down in tears, finally able to understand that her child’s interest in art could be a viable career choice.

Aside from bringing families closer together, the organization strives to spur discussion about issues commonly seen, yet rarely discussed. Past curations have included topics related to cannabis activism, humanity’s environmental impact, and gender equality.

In 2017, Manhattan’s Lower East Side hosted The Future Is Female, an art show curated by women, featuring pieces of artwork made exclusively by women and female-identifying individuals. For many New Yorkers, this exhibition marked their first encounter with SaveArtSpace. The Storefront Project, located on Orchard Street, showcased the artists’ work for a week in July.

The following year, Carlo McCormick curated Going Green, which centered around advocacy for the disenfranchised and voiceless. Cannabis activism, social justice, and climate policy are topics both Rix and Aversano feel strongly about, and this curation was a chance to bring positive discussions to subjects often seen in a negative light.

Capitalizing on Rix’s Michigan roots, the organization broadened its operations. In 2019, SAS recruited Ellen Rutt to curate Signs of the Times, a billboard series focused on pertinent questions. Phrases such as “trans people are sacred,” “climate change is a global emergency – act now,” and “we demand an end to police brutality now,” were plastered along highways and buildings spanning Detroit. The city-wide exhibition culminated in a gallery partnership with Playground Detroit.

“Sometimes shows can be beautiful just for art’s sake, but we like to focus more on the cultural impact of what we’re working towards,” Aversano explained. “The dialogue we really wanted to create is centered around making art, civilization, and culture smarter than simply being sold to. We wanted to create something sophisticated, something more than ads are capable of, because [art] brings out the nature of humanity through what people are feeling rather than what they are told to purchase.”

“Sometimes shows can be beautiful just for art’s sake, but we like to focus more on the cultural impact of what we’re working towards,” Aversano explained. “The dialogue we really wanted to create is centered around making art, civilization, and culture smarter than simply being sold to. We wanted to create something sophisticated, something more than ads are capable of, because [art] brings out the nature of humanity through what people are feeling rather than what they are told to purchase.” This drive to provide the community with substance explains the desire to reimagine large advertising spaces.

He continued, “there is a conversation about commerce and consumerism that the platform of billboards initiates, whereas we use the platform to empower and give rise to voice that is typically unheard. That’s the real philosophy of SaveArtSpace – we don’t sell products, we show artists.”

The future of the organization, like many of its featured artists, is looking bright. Forthcoming exhibitions are planned to include cities such as Louisville, Portland, Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. For Rix and Aversano, urban planning and environmental safety pursuits are on the horizon, while they continue to build SAS to develop a broader reach within their communities and beyond. While the dispute of whose idea SAS was may continue, one thing is certain – the transformative power Rix and Aversano have on their community has a rippling effect that will last long into the future.

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UP. She is the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel that follows a love story between 24-hour-diner waitress and a Postmates driver. As an art writer, she is particularly interested in working with international artists and exploring how visual art can both transcend cultural boundaries and highlight the complexities of individual identity. Emma is a graduate of The New School and a Wilbur and Niso Smith Author of Tomorrow. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Insta: @emmawithglasses

Website: emmawithglasses.com