NEW BEDFORD — On a weekday afternoon, college art students were back to work at UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store Campus after spring break. Some hunched over their work tables sculpting clay pieces, while others sat surrounded by colorful fabrics to be made into fashion designs. In another studio, a class stood at attention as a peer described her jewelry/metals project.
Around them, some art studios outfitted with equipment and materials sat empty.
In one studio, wooden looms stood in the dark. The college’s dean, A. Lawrence Jenkens, said there is a class there about once every few semesters. Other studio doors throughout the building were closed or locked. Nearby, the welding room also sat empty of students — Jenkens remarking some of the equipment was moved back to the main Dartmouth campus.
Coming next week
Declining enrollment at UMass Dartmouth, Bristol Community College and Bridgewater State University is pushing administrators to offer more career-path curricula, including certificate courses and technical offerings.
Read Sawyer Smook-Pollitt’s report in The New Bedford Light.
The drop in fine or studio arts and the growth of design programs at the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts is currently at the heart of a debate between some students, the administration and community members. As they look toward the future of the more than 20-year-old New Bedford campus, the college dean sees the necessity to expand design space and downsize some underutilized studio arts spaces, while others worry the campus will lose the faculty and students who earned it a national reputation and played a role in the city’s economic and cultural revitalization.
Don Wilkinson, an art critic and alumnus of the then-Swain School of Design and CVPA, said the studio arts have fostered unique and integral relationships in the city, but student demand in the studio arts has dropped dramatically, according to the school’s dean. Conversely, interest in design courses for fashion, graphics and gaming has gone up, says Jenkens, who has envisioned a reconfiguration of the New Bedford campus to expand the design presence.
“Do you need half a floor of jewelry/metals equipment? Do you need half a floor of printmaking equipment? Probably not,” Jenkens said, adding it is a faculty-driven conversation. “As much as it would be great to offer those classes in perpetuity, it doesn’t make sense to invest those resources for a very small number of students when there are a larger number of students who aren’t necessarily being given what they need.”
Changing arts curricula part of national trend
CVPA is not alone in dealing with shifts in enrollment and demand. According to the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, demand for “traditional arts and crafts majors” has fallen nationwide, while interest in game design and animation has “soared,” the Hechinger Report reported earlier this year.
According to Hechinger, the Maine College of Art and Design recently “amped up” its animation and gaming program in order to adapt amid an “existential crisis” of declining enrollment in higher education. The school even added “and Design” to its name.
Enrollment has also declined at CVPA. According to school data from 1998 to 2021 for both undergraduate and masters students, enrollment reached just over 800 CVPA majors in 2006 and then began to decline. Since 2013, CVPA majors did not exceed 700, dropping to the low to mid-500s in recent semesters. Then, in the fall of 2021, enrollment dropped below 500.
In the spring of 2020, the college collapsed some concentrations into an “integrated studio arts” major, said a university spokesperson. Students can no longer major in textiles, for example, but can still take classes in it. Jenkens said when printmaking was collapsed into the major, there were zero concentrators, and that the classes drew four to five students.
Animation and game arts, ceramics, graphic design, drawing, jewelry/metals, sculpture and painting can also be studied under the major, but some of the concentrations also exist outside of it.
Rosie Amato, a senior transfer student and integrated studio arts major, initially came to CVPA to study textiles and metals. She described the major as a double major where students can pick two or three areas of concentration and design their own program, particularly if those areas are no longer standalone majors.
Amato said she was taken on a tour of the Star Store campus before starting school, where she saw the “amazing weaving room” and all the textiles and metals studios. But after her first year, she said the one full-time textile faculty retired and was not replaced.
The last two textile classes she was offered were taught by graduate students, which she said isn’t atypical, but noted they were not expert weavers or were only experienced in some of the techniques.
Jenkens said the classes are never taught by unqualified faculty. There are currently no full-time textile faculty, a university spokesperson confirmed, and textiles is not offered as a concentration, just as classes to support other majors.
According to school enrollment data, 20 to 36 students were majoring in textiles at one time during the late 1990s and early 2000s
In some ways, Amato said she was set on a good path because CVPA brought her to jewelry, which she is interested in. But in other ways, she said her specialization was “predestined” by the priorities of the school, which she said has moved toward the more career-oriented, commercial design fields like fashion and graphics.
Wilkinson also raised concerns about “attrition” of CVPA faculty over the years, stating positions are not getting filled in a department after a professor retires or dies.
Jenkens said staffing is driven by enrollment and that while it’s a “difficult decision,” the decision of whom to hire after a faculty member retires does not rest solely within the college, and that resources are “enormously” limited.
“If someone in printmaking retires … it goes back to the provost; the provost looks at the needs of the university as a whole and makes a decision about whether that line should be refilled,” Jenkens said. “We have to justify to the provost and to the chancellor any hire we make.”
Some studio spaces move from New Bedford to Dartmouth campus
CVPA is split into two campuses: the Star Store at the corner of Purchase and Union Streets in New Bedford and the main campus in Dartmouth.
Wilkinson and Amato said there are unused studio spaces at the New Bedford campus that are “in effect being abandoned,” with Amato stating that beyond the second floor, the fashion studios are often the only studios ever busy. The textile studios, she said, are often empty except for one student.
Bones Jensen, a senior sculpture major, was very excited at all the classes offered when they first enrolled, but upon getting to school, said it seemed like some were being taken away.
Jensen also feels like the school has started “leaning away” from the fine arts and more towards design.
Sculpture has one professor and used to have a presence at the Star Store, but the studios were consolidated to the main campus at the request of the faculty member, Jenkens said.
Speaking to enrollment, he said some of the campus’ facilities with fixed equipment that were designed for 50, 60 or 70 students now only see four, five or six.
One of Wilkinson’s main concerns is what a decline in students in the studio arts will mean for the arts community in New Bedford, as he said those students patronize local establishments, set roots in the city and forge strong relationships with one another due, in part, to the physical nature of their work.
Audra Riding, general counsel for state Sen. Mark Montigny’s office, said the senator has recently heard from people expressing similar concerns. Montigny in the 1990s filed legislation that allowed the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance to enter into a lease and establish the Star Store campus for UMass Dartmouth.
Montigny provided a one-page statement to The Light, in which he discussed the history of the campus and his role, the cultural and economic impacts it has had, and the vision he had at its inception and for its future.
“It's important to note that none of this would have happened without the many talented artists and musicians who gave this campus and downtown life and generated synergy between the university and our community,” he wrote.
Riding said one of his priorities is to protect the traditional artists and makers who “made this campus what it is.”
Their work “drives the evolving development of our city,” he wrote, noting he is excited to work on the campus’ next phase, but that change cannot “come at the expense” of the traditional artists.
“I will push back against any private developer, state bureaucrat, or university official who may attempt to upend the original spirit of Star Store by diminishing our artists,” he wrote.
Jenkens said that he thinks studio arts are essential in an art and design program and that while the college has a long history of accomplishments in the studio areas, it needs to address a significant decline in demand. If demand were to re-emerge, then the college would revisit how it is allocating resources, he said.
CVPA is in the process of hiring for a few positions. The college made an offer for a special hire with a focus toward animation and game art who would also work across the college, Jenkens said. The college also plans to hire full-time lecturer replacements for art education, music education and animation game art, as well as a lecturer for foundations who would have expertise in the studio arts and the ability to teach sculpture, if necessary.
Jenkens said that while the studio arts are not going away, the college needs to “stay nimble” with its limited resources, respond to student and industry demands and encourage areas that have the potential to grow.
Lee Heald, director of AHA! New Bedford and a member of the college’s advisory committee, said the Star Store has been a bellwether for what is possible in the community.
She also noted it is important to think about what preceded CVPA, which was a “long tradition” of technical schools and campuses that trained people to work in the fabric and textile design industry. The “roots” were institutions educating creative people to work in industries, she said.
Design program will support fine arts courses
Having a “robust” design program is a way to support the studio arts, Jenkens said, noting design students will not major in the studio arts, but will take drawing, for example, as the foundation to their animation work. The revenue from those more “popular” programs could support areas that are “essential to the discipline, but aren’t necessarily teeming with students.”
The “art + design” program listed in the university's enrollment data has increased consistently over the last four years from 135 students in 2018 to 324 in 2021. It is worth noting, however, that majors, minors, and concentrations have been combined or reorganized over the years, the university confirmed, which would affect the data.
A university spokesperson said students in “art + design” can concentrate in painting, drawing, sculpture, graphic design, illustration, photography, interior architecture and design, fashion design or integrated studio arts.
Looking ahead at accepted students for the fall of 2022, Jenkens said around 60 are interested in interior architecture and design, graphic design or animation and game art, and about half of that are interested in fashion design and illustration. Four students applied wanting to concentrate in painting, drawing or sculpture, he said.
In contrast, enrollment data show sculpture had as many as 44 majors in the late 1990s, and painting had more than 50 in the mid-2000s.
Looking forward, Jenkens discussed a vision for the growth of the design footprint in New Bedford (most of the design classes currently exist on the main campus), including the possible development of a virtual reality studio, which faculty and students from other UMass Dartmouth colleges could use for interdisciplinary collaboration.
The long-term Star Store lease expired last year, with its extension set to expire this August. In response to a request for comment from UMass Dartmouth on its intentions for long-term lease renewal, a spokesperson said by email that the university is “fully committed” to continuing its presence in the Star Store.
Jenkens said there are many design businesses opening along the South Coast, so having a “design hub” in New Bedford would lend resources and provide talent to staff those businesses.
“What I imagine is a building that allows us to expand our design areas, including animation, game art, fashion, interior architecture and design,” he said. “It’s the ability to teach what is made in those facilities … My commitment isn’t to facilities as they exist today, some of which are unusable because of leaks in the roof and all sorts of things.”
That would mean moving some underutilized spaces back to the main campus, or at least reducing their footprint. Painting and drawing mostly take place on the main campus, as does music, welding and now sculpture. On the timing of future campus reconfiguration and renovations, Jenkens said there is “no timeline,” but that he is engaged in conversations about it.
In Amato’s view, the job market is flooded with digital designers, and so-called design hubs exist in other cities, whereas programs that offer metals and jewelry, printmaking and sculpture are fewer and farther between — something that only places like the Star Store can offer.
“I think we’re really in a cultural moment where people are gravitating towards the handmade and physical craft,” Amato said. “As a society we need the crafts, we need people making things by hand, and I think that’s a lot more the zeitgeist.”
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com.