NEW BEDFORD — Keeping artists connected was the immediate concern of New Bedford arts planner Margo Saulnier during the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 forced a total shutdown, then significant restrictions to most public gatherings.
In her role as creative strategist (operating from the New Bedford Economic Development Council), Saulnier knows that the public image of the city’s arts and culture community is largely reflected by such anchors as the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, downtown’s UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts campus, New Bedford Art Museum and the like.
Yet, it’s the legion of diverse individual artists who fuel these institutions and lend distinction to New Bedford. And that legion — the complex and social ecosystem that is commonly referred to as New Bedford’s Creative Community — had seemingly ground to a halt.
Except it never really did.
Indeed, March 2020 can now be labeled as the month the arts didn’t die in New Bedford. Instead, the “Creative Community” displayed a resilience that would not only help define the entire year but also fuel the ongoing recovery from COVID-19.
Art is Everywhere
“Within a month, AHA! New Bedford became Vaha! New Bedford,” Saulnier marvels. She’s referring to the rapid decision to program virtual events online in lieu of the traditional in real-life events that characterize the monthly downtown New Bedford celebration of arts, history and architecture.
Beyond keeping local artists connected to each other and the community, Saulnier realized another essential mission: keeping them connected to the resources and funding that is essential to power so much of their work.
‘Now we’re seeing a return to in-person events, which is so exciting,’ said Margo Saulnier, New Bedford’s creative strategist.
Local artists, arts entrepreneurs, and cultural landmarks get back to business now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
Fortunately, in the spring of 2020, New Bedford Creative was ready to launch “Art is Everywhere.” That’s the funding program made possible by the Barr Foundation, overseen by MassDevelopment and administered in the city by Saulnier’s office, dubbed New Bedford Creative.
It was the first year of the new program for New Bedford — a pilot year that would feature only one grantee. And that turned out to be a prescient selection, made by a review committee cultivated from the community.
The first recipient was 3rd EyE Unlimited, which was able to amend its original proposal and transform “Your New Bedford” from a series of neighborhood pop-up events into an online series, still with a focus on neighborhoods.
It not only dealt with the challenges posed by the pandemic, but it was perfectly suited to tackle the tough issues that arose after the murder of George Floyd.
Since its inception, 3rd EyE Unlimited has been a vehicle for hip-hop and expression from the city’s diverse youth. As emcee of the series of “Your Neighborhood” online pop-ups, host Lonelle Walker was in a position to discuss issues arising from the racial reckoning occurring across the nation and in the city, thanks to “Art is Everywhere.”
This year, “Art is Everywhere” has selected its first full slate of project awards in New Bedford, following the successful template of its pilot program and building upon the work of Walker and 3rd EyE Unlimited.
More than $60,000 in funding has been awarded to six projects — helping to fulfill Saulnier’s goal of connecting artists to resources to help them recover from the pandemic. Each builds on the strength of arts and culture in New Bedford, she notes.
Saulnier recalls speaking to a prominent artist from Boston last year — who now lives in New Bedford.
“He was amazed that we even had a hip-hop festival like the 3rd EyE Open,” she says.
“We do! 3rd EyE and the projects selected this year reflect the values of New Bedford, and the intention of the ‘Art is Everywhere’ to creatively solve community problems and begin the healing and recovery process after what has been (and continues to be for many) a devastating year.”
Wicked Cool Places
“Art is Everywhere” was but one project to demonstrate that COVID-19 wouldn’t kill arts and culture in New Bedford. “A lot of public art happened during 2020,” Saulnier says. “It was both a challenge and an opportunity.”
Throughout last year and into this year, she has maintained a monthly email notification system for local artists, alerting them to public and private funding opportunities. Some are available to local artists only; some are national in scope.
For example, Wicked Cool Places is the New Bedford’s grant program for creative placemaking. It is funded by the city’s Arts, Culture + Tourism Fund, with additional support from Bristol County Savings Bank. It was fully launched in July 2019, shortly after the New Bedford Creative Consortium was formed under the city’s first-ever arts and culture plan, which debuted in late 2018.
In February 2021, Wicked Cool Places announced funding for projects such as a BuyBlackNB pop-up artisan market and UMass CVPA lighting design for the Phillips Avenue Pocket Park on Acushnet Avenue.
“Dealing with all of the issues we have been dealing with recently is impossible without arts and culture,” Saulnier asserts. “That makes me very optimistic. There’s been a lot of tragedy over the past year or so, and a lot of healing and conversation needs to take place, but overall, I’m optimistic.
“If we can survive this year, anything is possible for the future.”
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