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Artistic Director and Founder Umberto Crenca
Photograph by: Jonathan Arce

There may be some truth to Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era dictum that no one is indispensable. But that would be hard to prove to anyone who has witnessed the growth of AS220 as an alternative arts space and community bulwark in the heart of Providence, Rhode Island. Umberto "Bert" Crenca, founder and artistic director, has shown the way at every important turn.

AS220, says Crenca's wife and fellow artist Susan Clausen, "wouldn't exist without a lot of people who kept it alive. But I wouldn't have started AS220. Bert did. It's his vision, really, that started the place."

AS220 was born out of a group of artists who met at Crenca's first show. They began to talk about the lack of an arts scene in Providence and ended up meeting at Crenca's house. After months of "crying, yelling, screaming," as Crenca said, three remaining members signed and sent out a manifesto.

The Providence Journal and four weeklies printed it. After that, "we got all kinds of phone calls -- people saying, `What is this? How can I get involved?' And then the criticism: `Oh, yeah, this is great. How would you do it?' So we said, `we gotta demonstrate how.'"

They sent out word that every artist in the state was welcome to exhibit at a show they called the Rhode Island Art Event. They booked space at the Antonio D'attoro Steeple Street Studio as well as at a dance studio at Brown University.

The Rhode Island Art Event was a success, and organizers realized that what Providence needed was a permanent place for art and artists who felt unwelcomed elsewhere. In August 1985, with this vision and $800, they rented a loft at 220 Weybosset Street, hung paintings on the wall, and summoned a local rock band to kick things off.

In the early years, there was no payroll. AS220 relied entirely on volunteers, including the resident artists, to keep the doors open and the lights on. These roots, Crenca said, help "make this organization unique. There was never any question about the motivation of people who worked here. They were here to participate in, to support, to promote the values and philosophy of this organization."

He summed up that philosophy this way: "Our whole purpose is to make the arts and creativity as accessible as possible and to recognize in our programs and our behavior that we value the expressive potential of every single individual on the planet no matter what their situation or condition.... The way you ensure quality is by providing opportunity."

The goal for AS220, Crenca's wife Susan said, "is to become strong and to last, without Bert; to be able to outlive Bert." If the people who inherit the space have half of Crenca's passion and enthusiasm, there's no doubt that it will.