NEW BEDFORD — On a perfect summer evening Thursday, a crowd downtown cried out that something is terribly wrong: the heart of an arts and business revival has been dismantled and carted to the suburbs as the UMass Dartmouth arts college quits the Star Store.
More than 200 people rallied at the building on the corner of Union and Purchase streets to protest and pledge to fight the university’s decision, despite statements from the main public players offering little hope that anything can be done to return the College of Visual and Performing Arts to the place it has called home for more than 20 years.
“This building is a cathedral, it is a holy space” for the city’s cultural life, said Don Wilkinson, who earned his master’s degree in fine arts at UMass before the CVPA moved to New Bedford. One of several people who took the microphone to address the crowd, Wilkinson called the Star Store and the Zeiterion Theatre, a block down Union Street, the “yin and the yang” of city culture.
Another UMass graduate, Janet Barbosa, said the Star Store had become an “anchor to the arts scene in downtown New Bedford … the arts ecosystem would not exist without this store.”
Rachel Thomas, who in 1980 graduated UMass Dartmouth — then called Southeastern Massachusetts University — with a degree in political science, did not address the crowd, but she said in an interview that the arts college students and faculty had revived the city center.
“They brought it back from a coma,” she said. “It breaks my heart for the businesses,” she said, reeling off the names of downtown restaurants that have emerged since the CVPA arrived in 2001.
Cynthia Cummings, who retired as UMass Dartmouth’s assistant vice chancellor for student affairs in 2020, did not mince words in an interview as the rally began.
“I am bulls—, I am flabbergasted,” Cummings said. “I cried for days. These students and faculty members I supported, I can’t believe the way they’ve been treated … This program is a jewel in the crown of UMass Dartmouth, and to discard it in this way is unjustifiable.”
Even as the gathering went on, a truck pulled up on Purchase Street outside the store with yet another empty dumpster as the work of clearing the building continued. The crowd booed. Soon the truck and dumpster withdrew.
The work of moving student art work and supplies and tossing out furniture began days after the university announced the decision on Aug. 14. Some students said they’d been hearing rumors of a possible move for months, but still said they were stunned by the announcement, the haste with which they had to pack their studios and leave.
On Monday, the university announced new quarters — some temporary — for the CVPA: four locations on the main campus in Dartmouth, a fifth in a space that recently housed a Bed Bath & Beyond store in Dartmouth Towne Center on State Road.
The places and characters in the story that has unfolded in news and commentary since the move was announced were reflected in speeches and signs hoisted and posted around Union and Purchase on Thursday evening.
“FIRE FULLER” said one sign, referring to UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Mark Fuller, who took office in August 2021.
Fuller acknowledged in his announcement that the move would be devastating, but said the university was left with no good choices after the state budget was adopted on Aug. 9 without the $2.7 million allocation needed to lease the building for another year. In a written statement since then, Fuller said that while the university during the 20-year original lease had the option to buy the building for a nominal fee of $1, the $50 to $75 million in “deferred maintenance” on the historic building — dating to the early 20th century — would be a poor use of university funds.
State legislators have blamed the university, saying the state is poised to pay for the repairs if only the school had exercised the $1 option to buy.
Not among the speakers was State Sen. Mark Montigny, who was invited to appear. He played a key role in bringing UMass to the Star Store in the first place.
Montigny has sent a letter to Gov. Maura Healey asking her to intervene, but it was not clear how she could do that. Montigny has declined to answer that question. Healey’s press spokesperson responds with a bland statement: “we have received Senator Montigny’s letter and are aware of the concerns raised by the community.”
At-Large City Councilor Shane Burgo offered a supportive statement read by another speaker. The only public official to address the crowd in person was At-Large City Councilor Ian Abreu, who said he spoke for the whole council in decrying the move.
Calling the college downtown location an “anchor institution” for the arts, Abreu said “let’s keep fighting. We’re going to make it happen.”
A sign held by Kate Frazer-Rego, who earned a bachelor of fine arts in 2008 while studying at the downtown campus, was somewhat less affirming.
“MARTY SUCKS” it said, referring to Marty Meehan, the former Congressman who since 2015 has served as president of the University of Massachusetts.
Frazer-Rego said even if the university decision seems a fait accompli, she had to come out to be heard, and she joined those who took their turn at the mic.
“I don’t think the dirty politicians should be able to go silently,” she said in remarks after she addressed the crowd. “Not with this city, not with this building that I love.”
Rally organizers referred to the $1 purchase price for the building by taping to the Union Street side a gigantic dollar bill — some eight by 20 feet — that had been made years ago by students as a drawing exercise.
“Bed Bath & Beyond Disgraceful” read one sign pasted to the building, one of several references to the strip mall space that will be a temporary home for, among others, graduate students in ceramics and painting, who had been working in light-filled quarters on the Star Store’s fourth floor. The building was equipped with a room of kilns for the ceramics program, and looms for the fiber students. It was not clear how much of that equipment will be moved to Dartmouth.
“I believe any good university would never move their research chemists to a Pizza Hut, nor their law scholars to a Blockbuster Video, so why are we being treated this way?” Matthew Napoli, a current graduate teaching fellow in painting, told the crowd. “We are beyond disappointed. Our lives are disrupted, our contracts are violated. Tuition money has been paid. We dislike deceptive trade practices. We are hurt and we are angry.”
Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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