"RETIRE FROM WHAT?" Crenca. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

Our initial plan for interviewing AS220 co-founder and artistic director Bert Crenca involved a third participant: longtime Providence Journal arts writer Channing Gray. After all, it was Gray’s scathing 1982 review of Crenca’s first major show in Providence (see sidebar) that is referenced in the title of Crenca’s upcoming exhibition at Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket, “Puzzled: Ode/Owed to Channing,” and that helped inspire Crenca to launch AS220. But, alas, Journal management wouldn’t green-light an on-the-record commingling between Journal and Phoenix, perhaps because doing so would involve acknowledging our existence. So our interview with Crenca stayed one-on-one.

Not that this was a problem. Crenca’s exhibition offers plenty of fodder for conversation. It includes an appearance by his Mobile Urban Gentrification Unit; prayer flags made from newspapers criss-crossing the gallery; a mural-sized, Dali-esque explosion of shapes and colors titled “Puzzle”; and numerous smaller paintings and drawings that address issues ranging from President Obama to the nuclear meltdown in Japan to marijuana to abortion to the origins of the universe. “Little things,” Crenca says.

The opening also comes days before Crenca takes the stage with various artists, musicians, and AS220 staffers at Trinity Rep for “BUILDING AS220: PAST. PRESENT. FUTURE,” an event Crenca describes as a “a kind of ‘State of AS220’ address.” “BUILDING” will, in part, untangle the dizzying web of departments that make up AS220; tell the story of how the nonprofit’s annual operating budget has risen from $800 to $4.1 million in 29 years; and address how the organization will continue to pursue its mission — “Envision[ing] a just world where all people can realize their full creative potential” — in the upcoming decades.

Our conversation with Crenca, which took place in AS220’s FOO(D) café on Empire Street in downtown Providence, has been edited and condensed.

IF CHANNING GRAY WERE SITTING AT THIS TABLE,WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO HIM? Thanks. Thanks for that review. That’s become the foundation of my life. All of the events that occurred following that are the reason for the existence of AS220, and my mission in life.

THAT’S PRETTY BIG. It’s huge, because then there was an op-ed piece written. And then there was a manifesto written. [Again, see sidebar.]

LET’S JUMP FORWARD A FEW DECADES. WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF AS220 LOOK LIKE? More building development. Creating more space to expand on a few programs: expand on the industries, expand on the youth program. Work ourselves into retail; help serve more of the local economy of artists by helping provide outlets for them to sell their work. [Create] a convening place for tours of AS220, but also as a potential way of marketing all of the culture in the city. An expanded media lab. Some transitional residency for youth [who] we work with coming out of prison. Potentially help develop some additional space for the Trinity/Brown MFA program and theater that we’re now also involved with, through our black box [theater].

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