NEW BEDFORD — The legendary rock band Kansas will play at the Zeiterion Theatre in December. Custom House Square in downtown will host a series of Thursday night summer concerts, running from early July through late August.
New entertainment venues are opening in the South End, and fresh exhibits are being unveiled in New Bedford’s museums. And much to the relief of many in the city’s arts and culture scene, patrons are coming back.
“What’s really encouraging is that there are a lot of in-person events happening,” said Margo Saulnier, the creative strategist for the New Bedford Economic Development Council.
Beginning this spring, as COVID-19 vaccinations rose and hospitalization and death rates fell, events on the city’s arts and entertainment calendar increasingly turned from all-virtual to hybrid, accommodating small audiences along with live streaming.
“Now we’re seeing a return to in-person events, which is so exciting,” said Saulnier, who has attended several small events and gatherings in recent weeks and feels a sense of normalcy returning.
“It’s still not pre-pandemic, but it’s starting to feel that way, which is great,” she said.
Local artists, arts entrepreneurs, and cultural landmarks get back to business now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
March 2020 is the month that the arts didn’t die in New Bedford. Instead, the city’s ‘Creative Community’ displayed resilience.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic loosens its grip on everyday life, New Bedford’s arts community is bouncing back after 16 months of being confined to mostly virtual spaces. The return to in-person gatherings and events is a welcome shift for local musicians, venue operators, visual artists, and residents who are itching to get out and catch a show, a concert, a cultural festival, or a new art exhibit.
“I’m going to try to be at everything,” said Jasmyn Baird, 26, a New Bedford resident who is a senior creative fellow at the New Bedford Creative Consortium, a leadership group that oversees the execution of a citywide strategic arts and cultural plan.
“Personally for me, I just want to be out there, everywhere. It’s like I feel the need to make up for all the time I’ve lost,” said Baird, who added that she believes the pandemic challenged local artists to be more creative and intentional in their networking.
“I think New Bedford already had an appreciation for the arts and culture community,” Baird said. “But I think now there’s a richer appreciation for our arts and culture community.”
Ethan de Aguiar, 32, a videographer from New Bedford, agreed.
COVID “expanded the appreciation of the community as a whole for the arts in general, in more of a sense of what the arts does for us on a humanity kind of level,” said de Aguiar, who last year filmed a short video during the early weeks of the pandemic.
The video — “To New Bedford, With Love” — reflected on the social isolation when lockdowns emptied out the city’s streets, and forced restaurants, schools and “non-essential” businesses to close. Those weeks, and the ensuing months, de Aguiar said, prompted local artists to think about what they create, and why.
“I don’t think the arts in New Bedford are rebounding, because I don’t think we ever really went anywhere. When the pandemic hit, I think that’s when the artists came out to play, so to speak,” said de Aguiar, who described the last 16 months as “a Renaissance” for New Bedford’s arts community.
“We, as an arts community, need to carry that momentum over to the business side,” he said.
From a strictly financial point of view, however, COVID-19 was anything but a fruitful time for many galleries, entertainment venues, and event organizers.
“It definitely hasn’t been an easy year,” said Zachary White, the executive director of Gallery X, which showcases the works of local artists. Having generous donors and equipping the website to handle online payments helped Gallery X to weather the pandemic’s financial headwinds.
“I’m happy with where we are considering what we’ve gone through,” White said.
The pandemic’s economic fallout can still be felt with the loss of some of the city’s most-beloved landmark festivals, including the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament and the New Bedford Folk Festival.
“The loss of those big events is huge for the city because those larger events bring out thousands of people to New Bedford, many of them visitors, and we want to encourage visitors to come,” said Saulnier, the city’s creative strategist for arts and culture.
“The pandemic has been disastrous for our industry,” said John Ippolito, who helps operate the Nightstage Performance Center at the Kilburn Mill, the former cotton and textile mill at Clarks Cove.
Ippolito said the entertainment industry “took a big hit” during the COVID-19 shutdowns, which he noted hurt not only full-time musicians but also stagehands and many vendors.
“Just the fact that we’re opening is a miracle in my eyes,” said Ippolito, who was preparing for the Nightstage’s grand opening on June 26. Blues legend James Montgomery and his band were the venue’s first act.
Through late September, the Nightstage has booked renowned blues guitarist Ana Popovic, comedians Christine Hurley and Steve Sweeney, rock musician Barry Goudreau — formerly of the band Boston — and American Idol Finalist Ayla Brown and Nashville musician Rob Bellamy.
“We’ve built a hell of a lineup,” said Ippolito, who is also filming a documentary in New Bedford on the life of former Boston drummer Sib Hashian. Footage for the film was shot June 13 at the Nightstage with former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, who was on drums that night for the Flutie Brothers Band. Montgomery made a special appearance.
“I think New Bedford on the whole has more to offer post-pandemic than many other places,” Ippolito said. “We have the Zeiterion, the Cisco brewery, ourselves, and a bevy of other great places, including the Airport Grille and the Seaport.
“It’s a great city,” Ippolito added. “We think it’s one of the hidden gems of New England.”
Lee Heald, the director of AHA! New Bedford, said the city’s arts community “is energized” and ready to respond to the emerging post-pandemic landscape.
“The arts community is really very solid, and invested,” said Heald, who noted several new exhibitions that include the works of Ruth E. Carter at the New Bedford Art Museum, the artwork of the late UMass Dartmouth professor Marc St. Pierre at the University Art Gallery, and a presentation of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s most famous paintings at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The Cape Verdean Association Cultural Community Center recently hosted an outdoor concert near its location in the old Strand Theater on Acushnet Avenue, which is being renovated. Saulnier added that “Reggae on West Beach” is coming back, and said she hopes the Guatemalan Festival will return at Riverside Park.
“We’re trying to activate all parts of the city,” she said.
Wing’s Court, located in the heart of downtown, will host live music this summer. The Zeiterion is hosting a number of high-profile acts, including the comedians Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, Howie Mandel, and Portuguese fado star Mariza.
The New Bedford Symphony Orchestra will perform free outdoor concerts — “Sonata Saturdays” — on the fourth Saturday of the month, running through July, August and September. The performances will be held in front of The Drawing Room at 36 North Water St.
“What we’re hoping is that this kind of response from the arts community gathers energy and has an impact in the surrounding communities, for people to suit themselves up and be audiences again,” Heald said.
Saulnier, the city’s creative director, is optimistic that audiences will return.
“It’s encouraging because there are people out and about in downtown New Bedford on AHA! Nights,” Saulnier said. “Is it the same kind of numbers that were coming before COVID? Not yet. But will we get there? I believe so.”
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