New Bedford named state’s most creative community

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New Bedford has been named the most creative community in the state by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

The council honored New Bedford with a 2017 Commonwealth Award for “providing sustained leadership, funding, and infrastructure to the places where art and culture are presented, and where artists live and work, providing a model for cities everywhere.” Given every two years in several categories, the awards will be presented Feb. 15 at the Statehouse.

“I’m just so proud of New Bedford. It’s a recognition richly and well deserved,” said Lee Heald, director of AHA!, a monthly gallery night in the downtown area that focuses on art, history, and architecture. She wrote a letter nominating the city.

The city’s trajectory over the last 20 years has been “quite extraordinary,” she said, moving from a time when the downtown was virtually deserted, with only small pockets of cultural activity, to today’s vibrant mix of artists, students, cultural events, and businesses. The award doesn’t just go to the “arts and culture people,” but to the entire community for working together to remake itself, she said.

Lee credited Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, with sparking transformative change with his work to move UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts downtown. Since it opened in a former department store in the early 2000s, the region has graduated the first generation of kids who think New Bedford is a happening place to be, and “people in New Bedford now identify with New Bedford as a changed place,” she said.

Five years ago, college students and faculty artists in New Bedford went a long way toward garnering New Bedford an even more widely recognized honor: The city was named the seventh most artistic city in America in proportion to its population, alongside the likes of San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, by Richard Florida of The Atlantic magazine. He and a research colleague measured cities by the number of artists relative to their population.

That award and the city’s transformation were major factors when the Massachusetts Cultural Council considered New Bedford, according to David Slatery, deputy director of the grant-making state agency.

“There’s a lot going on down there,” he said.

Slatery said the Commonwealth Awards show how arts and culture are essential to the state and its communities.

Rosemary Gill, executive director for programming and development at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, called the news of New Bedford’s award “wonderful.” The city’s cultural scene is a “beautiful, growing tapestry,” she said.

James Russell, president and CEO of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, said, “I’m delighted. I think it’s fantastic for the city.”

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell plans to attend the awards ceremony in February. He would like to make the city even better known for the arts, he said.

Pending approval of a home-rule petition, Mitchell has established a dedicated arts development fund, fed by hotel tax receipts, that would collect about $100,000 a year to hire an arts coordinator and accelerate the arts through things like live performances and public art, he said.

Follow Jennette Barnes on Twitter @jbarnesnews.

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