Alum’s Commitment to Local Artists Fueled His Passion for the Arts

Umberto “Bert” Crenca ’81, artist and founder of AS220, an alternative community arts space in Providence, shared his recipe for success at RIC’s March 22 Dialogue On Diversity lecture, sponsored by the Dialogue on Diversity Committee and RIC’s Youth Development Program.

Anna Cano Morales, RIC associate vice president for community, equity and diversity, kicked off the event, calling Crenca a Rhode Island legend.

“When I was a young programming officer with the Rhode Island Foundation, I got to learn from Crenca when he was one of the foundation’s fellows,” Morales recalled. “Through his leadership I got to learn about the man, the artist and the visionary that is Bert Crenca.”

During his hour-long talk, Crenca said when creating AS220 his top mission was to address equity and diversity.

Under his leadership, AS220 was founded in 1985 to provide a local, unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts. It supports theatre, dance, poetry, photograph, music, printmaking, painting, puppetry and more. Its facilities include four rotating gallery spaces, a performance space, a youth program, a recording studio, a print shop, a darkroom, a media arts and electronics lab, plus an AS220-owned-and-operated bar and restaurant.

“We visualize a just world where all people can realize their full creative potential,’’ Crenca said. “The carrot that drives AS220 is how are we going to make the world a better place.’’

In 1983 Crenca decided to move out of his house in the suburbs to become an artist.

“I planned an art show, a big coming-out party, because I was going to be the second coming of Pablo Picasso, at the very least,’’ he said. “After the show opened, I was looking for reviews in the paper, naively thinking I’d get one, and I did.’’

“Crenca is suffering from what appears to be deep concerns about injustices in the world,’’ the review read. “In fact, there’s hardly an issue that has escaped his attention.’’

Initially, Crenca said he thought “this [reviewer] guy gets me” but then “it turned into the most negative review one could imagine, and I was devastated.’’

Shortly after, some of Crenca’s artist allies came to his defense, criticizing the review via opinion letters to the newspaper editor.

“That sparked a dialogue and more people started following me,’’ he said. “It was then that I started to have meetings at my house to talk about what local artists could do to change the cultural environment of where we live, and not run off to New York City. We started working on creating a place that stood for embracing, celebrating and educating.’’

Since that time, the powerful presence of AS220 in Providence’s Downtown Arts and Entertainment District has fulfilled Crenca’s vision, providing space to anyone who needs a place to exhibit, perform or create original work.

James (Ari) Montford, director of the Bannister Gallery at RIC, described Crenca as a renaissance figure in Providence.

“The idea of being an economic engine, that’s Bert,’’ Montford said., “The idea of community building and partnerships, that’s Bert. Access and sustainability, that’s Bert. These areas typify what his philosophy is all about.’’

In 2016, the White House honored Crenca and nine other individuals from across the country as “White House Champions of Change for Making.’’

“I remember a Russian artist who said art is not a mirror to the soul but a hammer with which to shape it,’’ Crenca said. “AS220 was never about an ‘I,’ it was always about ‘we.’ It was about changing the mindset both of the artists and the community at large. I believe we changed the expectation among ourselves and raised the bar.’’