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Suzanne de Vegh, executive director of New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks!, is excited to have visitors experience the first exhibition created during her tenure, “Sound in Space, Sound in Place.”

“We want to stimulate people intellectually and emotionally. We want to engage their senses in new and different ways, and raise consciousness on all kinds of different levels,” she says.

De Vegh is co-curator of the survey of contemporary sound art with Dr. Walker P. Downey, an art history lecturer from UMass Dartmouth whose main focus is the contemporary field of sound art and its historical and technological roots. The exhibition opens April 13 and will run through June 4 at the 608 Pleasant St. museum. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. April 13 as part of AHA! Night’s free activities.

“Sound in Space, Sound in Place” comprises several elements, including a crowd-sourced creation, “New Bedford Soundscape.”


The exhibition’s centerpiece, as described on the museum’s website, “is ‘Cluster Fields’ (2018-2023), a collaborative installation by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein, in which sculptural objects — snaking lengths of plastic tubing, cantilevered glass globes, and sheets of silvery mica, suspended from the ceiling overhead — are transformed into an unconventional sound-system. … [T]hey create focused sound fields that subtly shape-shift as visitors wander through them.”

It’s a prime example of the director’s determination to showcase artists who employ media to new conceptual and expressive ends, and to make NBAM a national and international destination for innovative contemporary art. She credits her “incredible team” for helping her to transform the museum.

De Vegh, who holds a bachelor’s degree in art history from UMass Amherst and a master’s degree in museum leadership from Bank Street College in New York, draws upon her expertise in contemporary art and as a director of programming in setting the course at NBAM.

Before coming to New Bedford, she was program director at the Pratt Institute, a university in Brooklyn known for its programs in architecture and design. De Vegh also has experience as director of public programs and audience engagement at the American Folk Art Museum and program officer at the Japan Society, both in Manhattan.

The New Jersey native has curated more than 50 exhibitions throughout her career and has written extensively for publications such as Artcritical, Art Papers, Art Spiel, Ceramics: Art & Perception, Sculpture, and The Brooklyn Rail.

De Vegh tells New Bedford Light about heading up the museum, sheds some light on sound as an artistic medium, and describes the ferment of creativity at NBAM.

New Bedford Light: You’ve worked at some prominent institutions in New York City. How did you land at a small museum in New Bedford?

Suzanne de Vegh: When this opportunity came along, it was perfect timing. This community is at this amazing moment where it’s blossoming. To be a director of the New Bedford Art Museum now is especially exciting, because things are changing rapidly and the art scene is really rich. And it’s an opportunity to contribute to a cultural banquet in the city and to move the city forward economically and culturally, and participating in that is thrilling. If you were to accept a position in an established New York City museum — a great honor, of course — but a different territory, and here there’s freedom that I may not have otherwise. 

NBL: How would you say the aural experience is different from the visual experience of art?

SDV: I think for many people, they are unaccustomed to privileging that sense. This is an opportunity to close your eyes and listen, and like reading, images will be generated in your mind, and thoughts will come to you, and perhaps memories. In a world where we’re dominated by the visual field and there’s so much visual stimulation, it’s exciting to create an aural awareness, an auditory awareness.

I think because you’re being asked to engage a sense that you might not ordinarily consciously engage, it’s going to potentially make visitors reflective and more meditative. … What’s nice is that you’ll take that consciousness out into the world with you, and perhaps you will listen to the sounds around you more attentively and realize how much they impact you or not. It’s almost like lifting a veil of some kind, and you’re entering into a world with new perceptions, a new understanding. So it’s about heightening awareness.

There’ll be so many different kinds of sounds to listen to. There’ll be a little bit of factual information about the sounds, but it’s for you to interpret.

NBL: A call for submissions for ‘New Bedford Soundscape,’ one of the exhibitions within ‘Sound in Space, Sound in Place,’  went out a couple of months ago. How has the response been?

SDV: Excellent! We’re really excited — lots of many, many beautiful, different sounds — dozens [have been submitted].

We invited people to contribute field recordings of sounds of New Bedford. We’ll give the time, the date, and the location, and the rest is for you to listen and understand. So I like the idea that we’re not guiding the narrative too much. We’re giving you some factual information about where it was recorded, but then you listen to it. And of course, there’s going to be complexity. It may be there might be a primary sound like birdsong, but then you’re going to hear all these other things at the same time. …

Sound locates us and orients us and gives us a strong connection to wherever it is we live or are visiting. I’ve made recordings all over the world my whole life, because I love it — especially sounds of water.

NBL: Besides ‘Cluster Fields,’ what are the other components of “Sound in Space, Sound in Place”?

SDV: Walker P. Downey’s class is working on a group project [“Sonic Textures of Place”] … And then Scott Bishop will also have his work. He created an EP [NBWaves] when he was artist-in-residence with the [New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park]. Scott will be performing at the museum April 28. Tess Oldfield’s ‘Whirly Chorus’ will be in the Fiber Optic Gallery.

NBL: You arrived in September, is that right? It’s one of the prettiest times of year. Have you been enjoying living in New Bedford?

SDV: I love it here. It’s so beautiful. I love my early morning walks with [her dog] Morgan. The light in New Bedford — there’s nothing like it. It’s spectacular. And I swim very early, so I love watching the dawn in New Bedford; I love watching the sunset, too. I love the architecture. I love the people. Everyone is so friendly, welcoming and warm. I think it’s what’s enabled me to be so successful with partnerships, because people are willing and they’re open and they’re ready to collaborate: DATMA [Design Art Technology Massachusetts], the library, the historical society, the Whaling Museum, Coastline Elderly Services, LifeStream, ARAW [The Association for the Relief of Aged Women] … oh gosh, so many wonderful partners.

NBL: What can visitors look forward to next?

SDV: We have the [contemporary] glass art exhibit in June, and then after that in our main space we have an exhibition called “The History of ‘Violence’” … it’s going to be all kinds of different street art including graffiti, and I’m co-curating it with Brian Tillett who you probably know does those magnificent murals. I like to say that he’s like two people in one, because he’s a full-time artist and a full-time scalloper. He is a fierce artist and I’m thrilled to be working with him. That’s going to be a really energetic and exciting show.

NBL: Has there been a resurgence in attendance since COVID has receded?

SDV: I’m hoping with all the new exhibitions we have coming up that will give people many reasons to come. Since I’ve been here, we’ve expanded the hours. We used to only be open Thursday through Sunday from 10 to 4. Now we’re open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 to 5. We’ve also greatly expanded classes and workshops — we’ve quadrupled or quintupled the number of classes and workshops — and we’ve added a suite of interdisciplinary public programs called Enchanted Evenings, so there’s really something for everyone. [These include film screenings, live music, date nights, dance performances and workshops, and poetry slams.] The New Bedford Art Museum has always been a community anchor, and we’re very proud of that. We’re looking to continue and expand that. …

We, like everyone else, had to be closed at a certain point. But we are seeing a resurgence in terms of attendance because of our programming. Not only did we expand the hours, but it used to be that exhibitions would last five months. Now they last two, maybe three, max. So constantly changing, rotating exhibitions, fresh programming every single month, and an eclectic mix of different kinds of art — really stimulating and exciting. A wonderful kind of mix for people to experience.

Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.Learn more about New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks!, its exhibitions, and its programs. John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein of Composers Inside Electronics, creators of “Cluster Fields,” will present a program about the sonic works they have collaborated on during the past 50 years at 6 p.m. April 14. Tickets, $10, are available on the museum website.

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