New Bedford shows off its cultural revival!
By Steve Urbon
NEW BEDFORD — City leaders exercised their bragging rights Friday as the Massachusetts Cultural Council came to town along with guests from “Gateway Cities” across the state.
They came to the former Star Store — now UMass Dartmouth’s primary arts campus — to see how New Bedford took all of the talk about building a cultural economy downtown and actually did it.
Sen. Mark C.W. Montigny, D-New Bedford, asserted that the effort required a considerable investment by the city and especially by the state, but it worked. Putting UMass into that building, he said, cost twice as much as a new building on the Dartmouth campus Ring Road would have. But the downtown was flat on its back and needed a big economic boost, and UMass promised to be it.
“We put millions of dollars into the downtown, and we created a critical mass” for cultural economic development, he said.
The downtown went from a blight of empty or struggling storefronts, a place where nobody lived or wanted to live, to a place so vibrant that “it’s hard to find parking, and sometimes it’s hard to sleep at night” because of the restaurants and clubs and AHA! nights, Montigny said.
Many of those restaurants were represented in the event’s lunch buffet.
The event was sponsored by the Mass. Cultural Council and by MassINC, the nonpartisan think tank that has been advancing the concept of Gateway Cities, old mill cities that had their heyday and are looking for ways to generate new opportunities. MCC announced a grant of $32,000 to support the AHA! (art, history, architecture) Nights year-round, another powerful economic development tool.
Participants — many of whom were representatives of groups that participate in the downtown scene — were given copies of a UMass Center for Policy Analysis survey completed late last year. It calculated the economic value of the city’s major cultural events, such as AHA!, Summerfest and the Working Waterfront Festival.
Following guest speakers, the meeting adjourned to a panel discussion to discuss specific elements of the mix in more detail, such as the Portuguese component and the national park. Guests then took tours of the downtown.
One of the out-of-town participants was Brockton’s newly elected mayor, Linda Balzotti. She told The Standard-Times it has been years since she last visited New Bedford.
“As the new mayor I want to look at best past practices,” she said. “And New Bedford is clearly ahead of the curve.”
Steve Urbon is senior correspondent of The Standard-Times
Margie Butler, who has been the Project Director of AHA! for the past 4 1⁄2 years, has resigned to accept the position as Marketing and PR Manager at FirstWorksProv in Providence, Rhode Island. FirstWorksProv is a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of the strong arts community in downtown Providence.During Ms. Butler’s tenure, the AHA! Project has received three prestigious and very competitive Adams Grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The AHA! Project has also supported the growth of the New Bedford Open Studios events; initiated a marketing partnership with NewBedford360.com; hosted a monthly cable access TV show with the City of New Bedford; and developed an enhanced program and corporate sponsorship for AHA! Thursday nights. During Ms. Butler’s tenure, the AHA! project has grown to over 40 partners. AHA! is a fiscal agent fund of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts (CFSEMA).Ms. Butler first came to New Bedford as an Artist-in-Residence within a program jointly sponsored by Artworks! and UMASS Dartmouth. She later pursued an MFA from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University graduating in June of 2006. Ms. Butler said that her first exposure to New Bedford was actually on the December 2002 AHA! night. She felt welcomed by the community and stayed to make her own unique contributions. Margie has brought tremendous enthusiasm to the AHA! Project and provided leadership for the arts community during a critical period of growth,” said Lee Heald, Co-Chair of AHA!, We will miss her creative energy, but wish her well as she explores new professional horizons.”A transition team has been formed to lead a search for her successor. Serving on it will be Craig Dutra, CMSEM President, Irene Buck of Artworks!, Karrie Vincent of the New Bedford Art Museum, Anne Louro from the planning office of the City of New Bedford Planning Office, and Rob Gould from Cape Arpeggio. Lasse Antonsen, Director of the University Gallery, UMASS Dartmouth, will Chair the Steering Committee in the transition period with Lee Heald stepping off the Steering Committee to serve as the Interim Director.The AHA! Project was formed in 1999 by a dedicated circle of cultural leaders, institutions, downtown businesses and individual artists. Since July of that year, the project has continuously presented its 2nd Thursday events. What originally included 14 venues now numbers over 40 and spans eight galleries, three museums, the National Historical Park, City Hall and The Library, many of the downtown’s unique stores, restaurants and cafes, as well as individual artist studios, a meditation center, several churches, The Bristol Building, The New Bedford Preservation Society and The UMass Dartmouth CVPA Star Store. AHA!’s mission is to collectively promote downtown culture and work towards greater sustainability of the downtown cultural scene and partner organizations.
This past Thursday night during AHA! I had a rare opportunity to get out of the Tatlock Gallery and walk up the hill to the corner of William and Purchase Streets. What a beautiful evening it was! Even better than the fantastic weather was the large numbers of people along the streets. There were families with children in strollers, young couples and groups of friends, meeting one another and standing in groups, conversing and “catching up” as they enjoyed the various entertainments spilling out onto the streets around them.
Without a doubt, one of the more creative and fun-to-watch events was that produced by Alda Roderiques and Mary Beth Vargas of White Knight Gallery and their resident artists, Arianna Swink and Jenny Newman, better known as Tenacious Lilly Jewelers. Arianna and Jenny are both Umass Dartmouth graduates who have remained after graduation to live and work in the emerging art community that is rapidly expanding in New Bedford.
With the help of friends like Bridget Lajoie and Susan Mogan from Studio Six on the second floor of the Cummings Building, they created a series of “live windows”, featuring a changing roster of models in a variety of outfits. The window scene changed every fifteen minutes and during each vignette, the models, who looked astonishingly mannequin-like, would change poses when least expected. Many of the younger viewers would exclaim to their parents “Mom, she’s alive!”
During the intermissions, which gave the models time to change for each
scene, high schoolers Jen Vargas, Danielle Wunschel and Zoe Ryan kept
passers-by entertained with impromptu mime skits in the windows.
Larissa McLaughlin, owner of the newly opened Blush Beauty Bar on Centre Street, did the models’ makeup, including one theatrically inspired “mask” design for Jenny Newman.
All the models wore jewelry created by Tenacious Lilly and their clothing came from a variety of sources, including their neighbor, The Artificial Marketplace and Celia’s Boutique, located around the corner on Purchase Street. Other pieces came from Blue Alvarez who is an independent designer from Foxboro and the fabulous fabric handbags were all from Maruca Design, carried exclusively in New Bedford by White Knight Gallery.
Rhonda Fazio, whose business is called Dyer Maker, provided them with
beautiful scarves dyed with natural botanicals such as onion skins and
indigo. Rhonda, also a graduate of UMass Dartmouth, has established a
studio in the Cummings Building, which also houses White Knight Gallery, Artificial Marketplace, Simmons Brothers Motion Picture Company, Solstice, No Problemo and Joe Piper.
Adding to the air of excitement was the music provided by the Celtic
musicians playing in and outside at Joe Mone’s new music store, aptly named “Joe Piper”. Joe gives lessons on the various Celtic instruments, most notably the bagpipes, sells instruments and plays with various musicians around the area.
Returning to the gallery, I rounded the corner of the Whaling Museum onto Water Street and saw Jarad Nunes and his group from the Youth Repertory doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet out of the second floor window of the Tatlock Gallery.
Once again I was struck by the enormous amount of creative talent and vibrant energy in this city. So I feel compelled to say–if you haven’t been downtown lately, what are you waiting for?/div>
At the core of AHA! Night’s mission is the topic of Cultural Economic Development.
In addition to the nonprofit museums and galleries in New Bedford, we recognize the great contribution small businesses make towards having a vibrant cityscape. During May’s “Changing Facade” AHA! held an entrepreneur panel discussion. The panel involved four downtown entrepreneurs: Stasia Powers/Artful Sinksboutique and up/stair/fine/art; Rob Gould/Cafe Arpeggio; and Celia Britto/Celia’s boutique. The audience was small, but did include a few accomplished and budding entrepreneurs.
Several ideas surfaced and fruitful connections between individuals were made. The importance of weekend business hours (Saturdays in particular) and consistency was discussed. For instance Cafe Arpeggio and Celia’s stay open late every Thursday and understand that traffic builds over time. The situation is somewhat different for Stasia Powers and Artful Sinks. She notes that her customers often come from a distance and so Saturday is when they shop. Yet, her customers generally find her on the web or through the home design world. Once they get to her she encourages them to walk around and experience the downtown. Stasia shared that her customers are delighted with what they find here. So, Artful sinks is actually drawing new faces to our downtown on weekends.
Another important topic that bubbled up was that of cross promotion — all the entrepreneurs present quickly began to talk about what they could do together. There were thoughts voiced about how increased downtown foot traffic does not always translating to sales. Still, these entrepreneurs are committed to finding ways to make their business work and decided that cross promoting their businesses would help. Perhaps the most synergistic element was that each entrepreneur’s vision for their store centered around service and offering a “specialty” product. This thread of offering unique products and atmosphere, whether it is on the menu or on the clothing rack, seems to be an important marketable point of difference for New Bedford’s downtown. The emerging fashions at Calico, the personal touch of Celia’s customer relations, the custom hand painted Artful Sinks and the homemade soups and bakery items as well as personality-filled Open Mic of Cafe Arpeggio, are all highly distinctive. You generally will not find these kinds of products and attention to detail in the Mall. And this holds true beyond the four entrepreneurs who took part in this discussion. Just look at The “New-B” International Market that is preparing to open in The Bristol Building. This market is going to be a neighborhood grocery featuring specialty items that reflect the diversity of our city’s population – highly unique! And the personal touch of the owners, Jose and Maria Andrade really comes through when you walk in the door.Between this specialty focus, the committed individuals and growing willingness to work together, this panel provided a glimpse at the potential which is now taking root downtown.
|March 7, 2006|
AHA! Program Director
Mass. Cultural Council Awards Adams Grant to New Bedford
State cultural economic development program fuels further growth of AHA!, the city’s ART, HISTORY, ARCHITECTURE Project.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) awarded New Bedford’s AHA! Project $50,000 in 2006 for new initiatives and ongoing expansion of the city’s Second Thursday free arts and culture nights. AHA!, a nonprofit project of Downtown New Bedford, Inc., is now in its seventh year of existence and involves over 35 partner museums, galleries, cultural organizations, merchants and restaurants in the downtown. This is AHA!’s second consecutive grant from the MCC’s John and Abigail Adams Arts Program for Cultural Economic Development. AHA!’s proposal was ranked 7th out of 34 proposals that the MCC funded in early February when the state agency released $1.35 million in grants for cultural economic development.
The Adams Program is the most far-reaching and ambitious program of its kind in the nation. Its intent is to stimulate income and foster fruitful partnerships between arts institutions, businesses, and local governments. Arts and culture can contribute significantly to successful economic development efforts,” says Mary Kelley, MCC Executive Director. “These grants allow us to work in partnership with community leaders, cultural organizations, and businesses to create jobs, attract new investment, and expand cultural opportunities for the people of Massachusetts.”
This year the Adams program will support dozens of communities in every region of Massachusetts. In addition to New Bedford, 2006 funding will help boost the theatre and performing arts scenes in Boston; expand cultural tourism on the North Shore, South Shore, Cape Cod, and the Pioneer Valley; and employ artists to help revitalize urban centers in Lynn, Worcester, Fall River, and Pittsfield. An independent review panel recommended this year’s projects for funding from among 48 proposals.
With this MCC funding, AHA! will pilot new cultural economic development initiatives as well as enhance marketing and infrastructure associated with its Second Thursday events. This year six of the project’s AHA! Nights will benefit from new media partnerships and expanded programming. AHA! Program Director Margie Butler comments, While the project will operate at an expanded level, the formula for success remains the same — to build collaborative programs and marketing around city assets and bring a fun, creative twist to the downtown’s on-going cultural renaissance.”
The cultural economic development initiatives pursued with the Adams Grant in 2006 entail a series of working roundtables that assemble business, city and cultural leaders around pivotal topics. These AHA! Roundtables will work on Saturday visitation to the downtown; a second annual City-Wide Open Studios event; the short and long-term revitalization of Wings Court as a place to convene; and further data gathering to present the city’s Cultural Sector to investors and newcomers. These topics were chosen by the AHA! Steering Committee and derived in large part from discussions amongst leaders of the city’s cultural nonprofits and venues at an October 2005 Cultural Symposium.
AHA!’s Adams Grant will be matched through a combination of City, corporate, and foundation funding. A dollar for dollar match that includes in-kind contributions is required by the MCC and is one way in which the award generates new public and private investment. Furthermore, all of the Adams initiatives are designed to increase awareness and participation in the city’s blossoming cultural community.
AHA! has received significant MCC support in its early years and worked closely with the agency on setting the project’s initial goals. With the return of MCC Cultural Economic Development funding in recent years, AHA! has become a prime model for revitalizing cities across the state. Meri Jenkins, the MCC’s Adams Program Manager, offers these thoughts on the project’s accomplishments. “The AHA! Project has consistently proved that cultural activities can and do play an important part in a community’s economic future. The project has helped to attract businesses, development and people into a downtown that was largely dormant seven years ago in the evening hours and is a model for other communities thinking about adopting cultural economic development as a development strategy.”
About the Massachusetts Cultural Council
The MCC is a state agency committed to building a central place for arts and culture in the everyday lives of communities across the Commonwealth. It pursues this mission through a combination of grants, services, and advocacy for cultural organizations, schools, communities, and artists. MCC receives an annual appropriation from the state Legislature and funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and other sources. Find out more about the MCC at www.massculturalcouncil.org
About the AHA! Project
AHA! (Art-History-Architecture) was formed in July 1999 as a collaborative non-profit partnership to establish Downtown New Bedford as the regional hub for arts and culture. Drawing on the city’s diverse cultural resources, AHA! provides monthly Second Thursday Night downtown celebrations, and pilots cultural economic development initiatives through private and public partnerships. The project operates as a committee of Downtown New Bedford, Inc. with a volunteer Steering Committee and in-kind programming provided its 35 downtown partner venues.