Posted Jan 6, 2018 at 9:31 PM
Almost 20 years ago, the UMass Dartmouth School of Visual and Performing Arts came to downtown New Bedford and with it the Whaling City’s quiet rebirth as a magnet for working artists.
That seeding has now borne larger fruit over the past few years as the city has experienced a flowering of new galleries, open studios and art spaces.
From the Hatch Street Studios in the North End to the studios at the former Kilburn Mills in the South End, the galleries up and down William Street in the downtown and over to Groundwork’s exhibit space on Purchase Street, the painters, sculptors, mixed-media artists are here. They’re literally creating a new chapter of the New Beford experience.
“The city is undergoing an arts transformation citywide,” said Dagny Ashley, New Bedford’s director of tourism.
The latest wave will reach a milestone next week with the opening of the new 10,000-square foot Co-Creative Center on Union Street.
It’s been a fairly steady build-up for about a decade. Among the landmarks: 123 Sawtooth, an artists’ lofts located in the former Ropeworks Building where Market Basket would soon be built at the former Fairhaven Mills site. Colo-Colo Gallery, a popular space in the upscale Historic District moved to a spacious former factory space in the South End. Two artists even opened a gallery, The Vault, in a former bank building just over the Dartmouth line.
A WHALE AND A NIVED
It was the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) that went out and obtained the grants and purchased the historic downtown office buildings that became the Co-Creative Center.
“This is a major investment for downtown New Bedford,” says WHALE executive director Teri Bernert, “not only in bringing beautiful historic buildings back to life but also creating a dynamic footprint for the area’s creative minds to collaborate.”
In addition to 2,000 square feet of gear-filled, open maker space that will be open to community members, the center (which WHALE has been developing for nearly three years) will also offer education, gallery, and retail space, a locally-sourced juice bar, and apartments for artists. It will also house many area not-for-profit organizations, including the Women’s Fund of Southeast MA (www.womensfundsema.org).
“This has been a collaboration with a lot of different individuals in the creative economy and in the non-profit world,” Bernert explained. “It is an idea born out of the community.”
One of the city’s interesting new artists is Devin “Nived” McLaughlin, of Nived Art (http://nivedart.com).
“I’ve watched the New Bedford Art scene ebb and flow,” said McLaughlin, who received a fine art degree from Bristol Community College in 2012.
McLaughlin began his professional career showing his work at many of the city galleries he visited as a younger art lover and he now hosts and shares his wit and wisdom at popular Paint Nite events in the area. “I’ve seen galleries in the area hold their first grand opening exhibition and I’ve watched those places close their doors for the last time, but never without leaving a mark on the culture here,” he said.
Just as the waves on the coast do, McLaughlin suggested the waves of New Bedford culture “ebb and flow” though he sees the current wave building towards a “high tide.”
“Every time a new project starts,” he said, “it greets this city with a grander, more powerful influence, inspiring others to create, discuss and enjoy art more.”
And while New Bedford’s historic buildings and breathtaking water views may inspire many, McLaughlin said it is the people who make the city arts scene shine.
“We have a huge community of driven artists from all skill sets and backgrounds,” he said. “It’s these folks that are breathing life into this city.”
THE STAR STORE
The cultural center where much of the region’s initial creative energy percolated is the College of Visual and Performing Arts, which in 2011 moved into a $19 million reincarnation of what was once the dry goods mecca known as the Star Store.
“UMass…has been the catalyst with the downtown campus,” Ashley said.
“The UMass art department moving to the Star Store building had a big impact of the arts in downtown New Bedford,” agreed artist Judith Klein (www.judithkleinart.com), who opened her first gallery downtown nine years ago but has since moved to the South End complex.
“Art students from our program…end up staying in the area and establish a studio in the several mill buildings that have wonderful spaces for our work,” said long-time UMass fine arts professor Marc St. Pierre.
And local artists are not the only ones taking notice. In fact, 2011 was also the year that New Bedford was cited by urban studies scholar and “creative class” creator Richard Florida as the “seventh most artistic city in America,” based upon the population density of its artists.
“The critical mass of artists, performers, galleries, and cultural institutions that flourish in New Bedford have created the ambience of a vibrant coastal cultural center,” Ashley said.
Just six years later, the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) named New Bedford the “most creative community” in the commonwealth. The city has also been cited by Bustle as sixth on the list “Best Cities for Young Artists” (it was the only Massachusetts city listed and one of only two in New England. ) Matadornetwork’s called the “the ninth most artistic town in America” and Complex cited it as one of its “10 Cities That Creatives Should Move to That Aren’t NYC or LA.”
“New Bedford is the place to be, whether you are an artist or a patron,” McLaughlin said.
AHA! AT THE BEGINNING
While many individuals and efforts deserve thanks, the arts engine that was there even before the Star Store was the monthly art party known as AHA! (www.ahanewbedford.org). AHA!, short for Art, History, Architecture, is a city-wide cultural event during which artists and entertainers come out into the streets and public spaces on the second Thursday of the month.
“AHA! is a platform for community participation and collaboration,” explained director Lee Heald, “Our monthly celebration of the arts and culture scene, the diverse city population, fabulous food, performing arts, and feasts and festivals have attracted new development and business growth, populated the city center with residents and students, increased tourism and generated new enthusiasm in this vibrant community,”
When AHA! was created in 1999, New Bedford did not have what Heald refers to as “a gallery scene.” In fact, she admitted, the city then had what could only be described as “a deserted downtown” with perhaps more criminal than creative activity.
“New Bedford had become a place few would visit,” Heald said. ”[It] was a Gateway City…[but] a gateway to what, was the question.”
AHA!’s mission was to make New Bedford “a vibrant city again, to attract new creative potential and expand cultural activities.” At the first AHA!, a little over 250 people came to interact with just 14 artistic partners. Today, Heald said AHA! engages over 65 partners and enjoys a regular audience in the thousands.
“We have learned that partners and partnerships create the program,” she said, echoing Bernert’s comments that fostering collaboration and mutual trust have been the “core mission” of the downtown revival.
A HISTORY OF ARTISTS
While the latest developments are noteworthy, New Bedford’s cultural tide has been coming in for some time.
“New Bedford has always maintained a vibrant creative life,” Ashley said, even before the big revival of the last 15 years.
In the 19th century, artists like William Bradford, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Clifford Ashley, and Albert Bierstadt grew up in the city or started their careers here. The Swain School of Design (which merged with UMass Dartmouth in 1988) attracted other artists from further afield.
The New Bedford Free Public Library housed one of the region’s first serious art collections. More recently, restorations and expansion of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (www.whalingmuseum.org) and the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center (https://zeiterion.org) brought a higher focus on culture to town.
“At one point, New Bedford was the richest city in the world, and home to over 20 theaters,” explained Rosemary Gil, the Zeiterion’s executive director of programming. “Today, The Zeiterion is the only remaining operating theater.”
In the 1980s, community activism helped keep “the Z” from becoming the last word in New Bedford theater.
These days, the theater hosts scores of performances each year (including shows by such legends as Alan Cumming, Jay Leno, the late Joan Rivers, and locally-raised star Samantha Johnson). It provides more than15,000 students with curriculum-based school-time events. In addition to hosting performing arts organizations like the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra (www.nbsymphony.org) and New Bedford Festival Theater (www.nbfestivaltheatre.com), the Zeiterion (which Gill calls a “cultural beacon” in New Bedford) also helps host festivals that attract thousands to the area.
THE ART MUSEUM AND GALLERY X
According to former Mayor Frederick Kalisz Jr., the “critical mass ” of the arts resurgence in New Bedford came with the city’s acquisition of the Art Museum Building and the creation of a gallery on the first floor. The museum effort began under former Mayor Rosemary Tierney. Kalisz credits then City Councilor Ken Ferreira, who came to vote despite being ill at the time.
Another important development was the opening in 1990 of Gallery X, a collaborative artist space that drew on many graduates of the Swain School. It was a time, when co-founder Chuck Hauck said “there were no other contemporary galleries in New Bedford.”
Described on its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pg/GalleryXNewBedford) as “a place, a collective, an art gallery, a performance space, a funhouse, a basement club, a party palace, a church, a meeting house, [and] a cornerstone to NB’s Creative/Art scene,” Gallery X has since been a place where “artists of all disciplines and persuasions can display or perform the fruits of their creative labors.”
As New Bedford is still a “cheap city to live in, with loft and studio space available cheap,” Hauck said attracting more artists has not been difficult, even in the early days. Even so, he admitted even he has been surprised by the rapid expansion in recent years.
Spotting the trend in the city, New Bedford native Margo Saulnier came home after years of work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other cultural organizations to serve as the city’s arts and culture strategist.
When asked about the key moments in the revival, Saulnier first mentioned 1996, the year that the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park was recognized as a United States National Historical Park and also the founding that same year of the New Bedford Historical Society (www.nbhistoricalsociety.org), which has focused its efforts on documenting and celebrating the history and contemporary contributions of African Americans, Cape Verdeans, Native Americans, West Indians and other people of color in New Bedford.
“The diversity of views allows New Bedford to have a rich tapestry of stories to tell and attract new audiences,” Heald said, noting many residents can trace their heritage back to the Underground Railroad that once brought fugitive slaves to the city.
Saulnier also credited the creation of the Creative Economy Task Force in 2008 with encouraging cultural and other development.
“There is a need for new business due to the student influx,” Saulnier said, “and the large population of creative young people influence the revitalization.”
The MCC, has brought over $1 million a year to the city, she said. Its local arm – the New Bedford Local Cultural Council (www.mass-culture.org/New-Bedford) has distributed about $70,000 in grants to local artists and also helped bring local schoolchildren to many cultural centers and events in the region. “The Seaport Cultural District has branded downtown cultural assets within a walkable geographic area,” Ashley points out. “Understanding the future potential of this sector is vital to our strategy for economic development as well as to the quality of life of everyone living in and visiting our city.”
“The power of cultural enterprise, creativity and collaboration are essential keys to New Bedford’s unique and distinctive identity,” Heald said. “Around this core, New Bedford has built a sense of place, engaged residents, forged a new economy and demonstrated how a Gateway City can show the pathway to the future.”
“New Bedford’s renaissance, cultural and otherwise, is the sum of many, many parts,” Gill said. “From a mayor who gets the connection between a healthy arts community and the economy to dozens of hard-working non-profit organizations, to artists of many disciplines who have chosen to make this their home, and the hope and promise of a young generation of entrepreneurs creating an interesting retail landscape – New Bedford [continues to be] on the rise.”
“We are already seeing bigger and bigger waves,” McLaughlin said. “Who knows what well see in the future?”
Original story here.