NEW BEDFORD — DATMA is flooding the streets with contemporary art installations through “Water 2021;” SuperflatNB is gearing up for its next public art project; and individual artists, arts entrepreneurs, and cultural landmarks are ready to get back to business now that COVID-19 restrictions have largely been lifted.
Yes, it’s Summer in the Seaport.
Or rather, #SummerInTheSeaport. That’s the preferred social media hashtag for the marketing campaign connecting the many people, places and events throughout New Bedford as a new normal asserts itself in the arts and culture community.
The campaign was made possible due to a grant award from Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. It’s being administered through a partnership of arts and culture organizations, such as AHA! (Art, History, Architecture) New Bedford, the aforementioned DATMA (Design Art Technology Massachusetts) and the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center.
Summer in the Seaport is an initiative to … well, take back the initiative after the pandemic. The $45,531 grant will be used to promote New Bedford as an arts, culture and maritime heritage destination through a combination of website redesign, advertising, lamppost banners, and social media promotion. The campaign will encourage visitors from 50-plus miles away to explore the city’s vibrant culture for an afternoon, a “daycation,” or an overnight or long weekend stay this summer, according to press materials.
As with all of society, the pandemic has had a profound effect on arts and culture, here in this city as well as everywhere else. But, if anything, the last year has underscored the resilience and adaptability of the arts in New Bedford when dealing with a crisis as well as social equity awakening.
The collective action responding to the pandemic and now entering a period of recovery from it has “strengthened our resolve for the future we are creating together,” City of New Bedford Creative Strategist Margo Saulnier says.
That spirit is reflected in the following look at how the artist Devin “Nived” McLaughlin, the arts entrepreneur Lonelle Walker, and the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center are navigating summer in the seaport — and the year ahead.
A working artist once more
McLaughlin (aka Nived) is looking forward to going back to work.
McLaughlin is indeed an actual working artist. From his address at Hatch Street Studios in New Bedford’s North End, he ventures out to teach classes, conduct outdoor painting sessions, and host a series of popular paint nights at local bars and eateries.
At least he did before the pandemic hit.
Naturally, due to public health safety restrictions, most of his public events came to “a screeching halt,” he says. Paint nights weren’t exactly COVID compliant.
He expects that to change — gradually — now that most restrictions have been lifted. Nonetheless, the enterprising artist has lined up a new version of the paint nights, working with a host of local nonprofits this summer.
Making art accessible is a passion with Nived. Though the pandemic forced him to find new ways to enable that, he’s definitely excited to forge a path forward.
He’s working with such places and organizations as the New Bedford Free Public Library, the Buttonwood Park Zoo, Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Buzzards Bay Coalition to bring paint brushes to the novice and practiced alike.
Though he adapted somewhat to an online experience over the past year, and even invested in a new camera and computer to facilitate virtual classes, it was no substitute for the live classes. They drew an average 50 people per event; virtually that shrunk to 15 and then almost nothing as time wore on.
However, the year-long hiatus didn’t dull his edge.
At the first proper post-pandemic era event, he recalls, “all the old jokes came back!” Of course, times have changed, and safety precautions are still being followed.
Luckily, most of his work now will see Nived outdoors with his painters, both at the special events booked by the nonprofits and his own private plein air classes, even as the indoor restaurant and bar work slowly returns.
And though art instruction online was neither fully satisfying nor profitable, it did win him over new followers.
“Creating art is about reaching people,” he maintains. “Art is for everybody.”
It just helps to “roll with the punches.”
A communal space for all
When DATMA opened its new season, “Water 2021” on June 17, it was launched with an online event in partnership with 3rd EyE Unlimited from what became a familiar place during the pandemic: The Communal Space at 246 Union St., downtown New Bedford.
A familiar face also handled the hosting duties: Lonelle Walker, owner of The Communal Space and someone who, against all odds, became an arts entrepreneur in the city during a pandemic.
Walker had actually begun the project before COVID-19 hit. The Communal Space was designed as “a “diverse arts cultivator space and modern art gallery” and, more importantly, as an “equitable co-working and a creative environment for multicultural communities.”
“The mission of The Communal Space is not only to help the community understand the past, but be prepared for the future,” he says.
That mission took on new urgency after the murder of George Floyd, and the nation — and this city — confronted a new awaking regarding racial equity.
Though The Communal Space was not yet officially open, Walker served as host throughout the summer and fall of 2020 for a series of online programs that were part 3rd EyE Unlimited’s “Your New Bedford” project.
For the uninitiated, 3rd EyE Unlimited is a nonprofit through which youth are empowered to engage, unite, and activate the community with hip-hop culture and mentorship to become transformative leaders.
In real time, the guests — artists, musicians, poets, small business owners, and other creative residents — represented a diverse New Bedford from a space created with them in mind.
The doors finally did open in February. And while Walker admits that the situation has been precarious while still dealing with fallout from the virus, he’s confident the space will become the sustainable, privately owned creative space for a diverse representation of the arts he envisions.
“We’re being responsible, and people seem eager to get into the space,” he says.
The Communal Space features a community library, the art gallery, and room to gather for just about any creative endeavor from painting to performance.
And you can put it all online — as ably demonstrated by Lonelle Walker, creating your New Bedford for all.
A reimagined Z prepares to reopen
The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center has been a beacon of culture, community and imagination since its rehabilitation as a building in the early 1980s. It has also acted as a powerful economic catalyst in the reinvention of New Bedford’s downtown into the Seaport Cultural District.
However, the Zeiterion that returns to center stage when it reopens with a full schedule in the fall, and all the seasons thereafter, will be a different performing arts center.
“We are looking at everything through a new lens,” Rosemary Gill, executive director of programming and development, emphatically states. And not just because of the experience of the pandemic.
“This has been an incredibly historic year. One in which we faced a national reckoning related to matters of race and social equity, and we’ve got to change, too.”
When the Z — as it is affectionately known — did open its doors to the public for the first time since 2020 on June 1, Cinema New Bedford reflected that change.
Cinema New Bedford is a bold weekly series that features independent films from around the globe. Thematically it runs the gamut from “Beyond the Binary,” movies and shorts focused on the LGTBQ+ community, to “Generation Kick Ass,” a September spotlight on youth.
For the series, the Z is allowing up to 100 patrons inside, while others can choose to purchase a ticket and view online. Both the thematics and form reflect a new reality — and the continuing challenge of reopening the Z for an upcoming full season.
Programming a performing arts center is a complex business, involving negotiation with performers, touring companies and agents. Before anyone steps foot on a stage, a host of contractual and logistical hurdles must be cleared. The pandemic and its aftermath only make this gauntlet more fraught.
‘Now we’re seeing a return to in-person events, which is so exciting,’ said Margo Saulnier, New Bedford’s creative strategist.
March 2020 is the month that the arts didn’t die in New Bedford. Instead, the city’s ‘Creative Community’ displayed resilience.
Yet, scheduling for an upcoming season is already underway. This includes both bringing back shows that were canceled due to the pandemic and securing new ones. Some performances are on their fourth booking date, as Gill notes with a resigned laugh. They have “booked and re-booked and rescheduled,” according to shifting circumstances.
Meanwhile, in addition to Cinema New Bedford, the Z is bringing it outside once again — as it did with its “Z Drive-In” last summer during COVID-19 restrictions.
It’s partnering with the City of New Bedford for this year’s Summer Sounds Series in Custom House Square Park each Thursday through August. The move is a nod toward its New Bedford Folk Festival, which had to be canceled once again in 2021.
“We cannot come back the same,” Gill says. And of this task, she terms it “life-long work to do.”
For the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, that means not only looking forward to reopening its doors in the year ahead but opening new doors for all. And creating a legacy to define a new century of magic onstage.
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