The faculty and student artists at UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store spent this week under threat from their own university. 

Get out of the Star Store building by Friday or lose everything, they were told.

The whole atmosphere at the CVPA campus on Union Street in downtown New Bedford was surreal on Wednesday. The university even ordered the furniture destroyed, the students said, because state regulations prevent anyone who works in the building from taking it with them. 


Two weeks before the fall semester was set to start, young women and men who were promised an urban art experience when they came to UMD, were ordered to quickly pack up years worth of work, ongoing projects and every bit of their creative lives for an ambiguous destination, not even necessarily at the cramped CVPA building on the university’s Dartmouth campus. Just somewhere at the Dartmouth school, they were told.

So they weren’t even sure where the school, which had almost insanely set out to rapidly get them out of New Bedford once and for all, was speeding them to.

Fallon Navarro with some of the ceramic pieces she had to “rush fire” because of the abrupt move of the CVPA campus in downtown New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

Fallon Navarro, an MFA ceramics student from Phoenix, talked about having to “rush fire” her third-year prototypes so she’d have the samples once she no longer had access to the massive brick kilns whose chimneys spout through the roof of the downtown CVPA campus. The university has informed the students in the ceramics program that only three small portable kilns will be coming to Dartmouth.

The problem with that, Navarro said, is that rush-fired creations, because they are heated at a higher temperature, are more fragile than other work.

“It’s disheartening,” she said of the whole atmosphere.

Cade Hanley, who is in the arts education program, working in sculpture, metals, ceramics and jewelry, talked about the loss to Nativity Prep of the arts school in the center city.

Nativity Prep, is a private 5th- to 8th-grade school for New Bedford boys who aspire to a prep school education. The majority of its student body are students of color, and it is the Star Store students who teach their arts classes.

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“Each student taught one class,” said Hanley, who ended up at UMass Dartmouth after moving to Cape Cod from Montana to play hockey. 

After a couple of years in the hockey league, Hanley found his way to the CVPA. He never would have been able to afford art school, he said, if he had not become a Massachusetts resident and could take advantage of a public university’s lower tuition.

“This is an affordable option for people who want to pursue this type of education,” said Tricia K. Smith, a CVPA alumna who now teaches at Tabor Academy in Marion.

“I don’t think anybody understands what this building is,” she said.

She returned to the Star Store campus this week because it is a community, and she just had to be there to offer support.

Smith was talking because most of the faculty are too scared to say publicly what they really think. That is the kind of thought-control that the state university of Massachusetts under President Martin Meehan has come to. A higher education campus that is supposed to be the place for a free exchange of ideas and thoughts is now just another bureaucracy where people have to go along to get along.

Smith explained that most of the artisanry courses that are now being rushed to Dartmouth have never ever been located there. 

CVPA student Cade Hanley and alumna Tricia K. Smith on the fourth floor of the Star Store campus in downtown New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

The history of the CVPA went from the prestigious Swain School of Design, located in the surroundings of County Street, to two CVPA locations on Purchase Street in the old Southeastern Massachusetts University building to the Star Store in the downtown.

In 1985, three years before Swain School merged with the CVPA, it absorbed the even more prestigious Boston University Program in Artisanry. From the textile looms to the woodworkers to the metalworkers, they’ve always been working in the industrial city that gave them birth.

“They don’t understand the consequences of what they are doing,” said Smith.

The artists are not in New Bedford because of some sort of magic, she explained. They came here to be at the arts campus, and they remained to live and work here. Without the school, there is no magnet that has drawn outfits like DATMA (Massachusetts Design Art and Technology Institute) and its exhibitions to New Bedford. The Hatch Street Studios, Kilburn Mill, the Art Museum — it’s all been spawned by the university.

“I don’t think anyone understands what this building is,” she said, adding that the accelerated way in which the university has ordered the building emptied — ostensibly because insurance liability problems caused by the loss of the lease require it — has been by design.

“They did this on purpose,” she said. In mid-August, the entire faculty and student body is engaged in the process of planning their programming for the fall semester. No one has had time to organize a protest because they are too busy following UMass Dartmouth’s order to evacuate in just two weeks.

UMD Chancellor Mark Fuller, the guy who abruptly yanked out the plug for the downtown campus on behalf of the central university system, was nowhere to be seen in New Bedford during this rushed exodus of students and professors. The hectic packing up, the dumpsters outside the front door, it all had the feel of refugees fleeing before the mercenary master comes cracking down.

For its part, the university says the discarded furniture did not meet fire code, and that it saved anything that did. But in an atmosphere like this hurried closure – after the university had insisted it had no plans to  leave and repeatedly told staff and students not to listen to “rumors” that they were – just bred more mistrust. 

Hole in the roof of the Star Store campus. Critics, including Sen. Mark Montigny, have contended the university and developer never did sufficient maintenance on the building. UMass Dartmouth has said there was never enough money from the state. Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

Present one day at the wake was Dean Lawrence Jenkins, offering tea and sympathy but ordering the security guards downstairs “not to let anybody upstairs” during his visit. Why? Lest the press ask questions about what this rushed exodus was really all about?

Sen. Mark Montigny, fresh from being outfoxed by President Meehan, arrived to assure all that it was the higher-ups at the university who were responsible. But even the students who at one time benefited from the state senator’s work to bring the school to New Bedford, had a hard time not believing that he had blown it. It was simply undeniable that he had single-handedly removed the funding for the Star Store lease from the state budget. Somehow, some way, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Mike Rodrigues, who crafts the state budget, should have talked him out of it.

A glance at the development of the state budget shows what is undeniable. The House funded the lease, the Senate did not, and the joint reconciliation bill between both branches of the Legislature did not.

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Montigny, peeved that UMass probably had deliberately missed the deadline for his and former Gov. Charlie Baker’s order to take the building for a dollar, seems to have decided not to fund the lease to developer Paul Downey as payback, or a bluff to get the university to come around.

Instead Meehan and Fuller used the elimination of the line item to accomplish what the university system has talked about for years: leaving New Bedford for good. Even former Chancellor Peter Cressy was reportedly against the campus being in downtown New Bedford 20 years ago, according to Montigny.

Montigny since the closure announcement has used the rationale that he had to protect the taxpayers from further paying for a privately-owned building, now controlled by New Bedford native Downey (as the result of UMass not taking the structure for $1 in time). But that doesn’t entirely make sense. Montigny has been willing to pay a private developer for 20 years when Downey controlled the building, and since he now controls it again, doesn’t he have a right to demand rent?

Dumpsters outside the College of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown New Bedford. Students have been told they have to have everything out by Friday. In the background sits the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, which will now be a block from the vacant Star Store building that housed the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts. Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has not covered himself in glory through this whole episode, directly faulted Montigny for cutting the lease funding out of the budget, on his weekly appearance on WBSM’s SouthCoast Now this week.

“I don’t think it was wise to cut the money out as a way of playing chicken with the UMass system. I think this was a mistake,” he said.

Mitchell has claimed that Montigny and the university led him to think their differences would be worked out so he did not get involved. That’s his mistake, as well as the mistake of state Reps. Tony Cabral and Chris Hendricks, who have represented the district where the Star Store is located.

Everybody figured it was Montigny’s baby, but they all know the longtime state senator well enough to know that he sometimes goes off on his own quixotic ventures. They had a responsibility to speak up during the reconciliation process between the House and Senate bills. They did not.

Still unanswered is how Montigny, or the House members for that matter, were not paying close enough attention to the clock ticking toward Paul Downey’s deadline of having the right to be notified of UMass taking the building for $1. I’ve asked all parties concerned and no one has given me a direct answer.

Mr. Downey, for his part, continues to put his own financial gain ahead of the city that he was raised in, and the community that is responsible for many of the opportunities he has enjoyed in life.

Liz Isherwood, a public relations representative who is working with Downey, first told me he might take written questions from me through her. Later she said he would probably not be available through email this week.

I don’t know what Downey is up to. He seems to be anxious to blame Montigny in all this. Former City Councilor John Saunders, long the head of maintenance at the university and Star Store, is said to himself be saying around the New Bedford campus that it’s all Montigny’s fault.

Saunders, of course, has reaped significant financial benefits from both Downey and the university.

A poster board with photos of some of the ceramics students at the CVPA in downtown New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

It’s a mess, and the elected officials of New Bedford have let us down. It only remains to be seen whether Gov. Maura Healey, who a week after all this news broke, has remained silent, will also let New Bedford down.

Mitchell is in damage control now. Despite the fact he said on WBSM that he has contacted Downey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, and UMass President Meehan about the situation, he still had not yet developed a plan with Montigny about it, a week after UMass’ announcement. Again, the city and the CVPA are reaping the results of these two most powerful New Bedford politicians not working well together.

Mitchell is also preparing the city for the ultimate news that New Bedford has lost the downtown arts campus for good, even as most of the city tries to somehow turn Healey and Meehan around.

He’s not burning bridges with the university president, oddly blaming the whole push to leave New Bedford on former and short-term UMD chancellor Robert Johnson, who he described as “largely” acting on his own to remove UMD from the city of New Bedford.

The mayor says he’s unsure any of this can be reversed.

“We’re gonna try to find a way to get this done,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s gonna happen. I wish I’d been involved at an earlier point. I wish that what had been reported to me was ‘It’s all fine and it’s gonna work out.’ Because it didn’t work out.”

Mitchell is too eager to blame it all on Montigny, although the latter certainly made the biggest mistake. He’s also, astonishingly, too eager to absolve Downey for turning his back on New Bedford.

It’s been five years, since the start of Meehan’s tenure, that the university system has been talking about each of the five campuses paying their own way, each of them moving into financing the state’s higher education system through private-sector capital and special interests, instead of by the taxpayers for whom the system should, and must, exist.

Years worth of work and materials are being shipped from New Bedford to Dartmouth in just two weeks after the university announced in mid-August it would close the school in weeks. Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

As for Gov. Healey, the one party who could really put pressure on Meehan, she seems to be on another one of her summer vacations, trying to keep a low profile until this has all blown over.

Here’s what Karissa Hand, her PR flak, is saying:

“We have received Senator Montigny’s letter and are aware of the concerns raised by the community. I don’t have further comment at this time.”

Don’t hold your breath, New Bedford.

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  1. I could only hope that these students who were promised an “urban art education” and are being so betrayed, will or can file a class action suit against the University. I wonder who could represent them? Or if they even have the means by which to do so? Injustice at its finest!

  2. It’s such a shame that there will be no real competition for mayor this year, and that we will have four more years of JM basically unopposed. Extending the mayoral term was such a mistake for the city.

  3. Another excellent article by Jack Spillane,on the persecution and assassination of CVPA Star,Store by the now locally despised Marty Meehan corporate monster megalomaniac of the Umass system who treats education solely as BIG BUSINESS and his political jesters and jokers politicians from Montigny and Cabral and,Rodrigues who signed off on CVPAS death warrant to Mitchell El mayor in the darkroom was he ? to to Paul stab in the back Downey more interested in profiting from his city than helping it.What do all these politicians have in common is being part of that old Irish boy network that has used and abused the,Southcoast for decades. Don’t think any of them understand the disgust and hatred that has and will exponentially grow against their destruction of CVPA abd against the UMASS system .Now ? is what are students faculty alumni arts supporters going to do about it? STAR STORE is still there …maybe est privately funded arts and design college also reaching out as Kat Knutson suggested to digital art with NO DEPEDENCY ON STATE SUPPORT OR CONTROL!Send delegation to Portland or Savanah art schools to see how they do it.And remember in November when these Judas’come up for election who your enemies,are!

  4. This is such a disgrace I can hardly believe it. Just when I was so happy about the state of New Bedford! What a disappointment all because of petty, parochial issues. For shame , Montigny, Downey, Meehan, Mitchell , Fuller and whoever else is responsible.

  5. This is tragic and disgusting. I was in that final Swain class that got jerked around in the 80’s and it pains me to see these students going through what seems like even worse than what we got. The systematic erosion of the art school(s) in NB is shameful. MassArt should step in and expand to New Bedford at the Star Store. The commuter rail is coming, the museum is expanding; let MassArt be part of the arts renaissance in New Bedford. All of those CVPA students can transfer. UMass does not deserve them or a dime of their tuition.

  6. As the saying goes, “Follow the money.”
    You can bet that one or more, or, perhaps even all of the persons named in the articles about this entire debacle, will personally gain from the loss of the UMASS, Dartmouth CVPA downtown.

    Money, power, and influence trump any sense of what is good for the community.
    Deliberate, disappointing, and disgusting.

    In my opinion, the rush to close the downtown campus was planned. The powers that be anticipated a significant backlash and decided to act speedily, so they could say, “Well, it’s too late now.”
    And they hedge their bets that the voters will have short memories.

  7. Guaranteed, this has been a plan in motion. Mr. Downey wants that building for condominiums. Mark my word, when the train finally arrives, they will be ripping apart this beautiful building and making condominiums for the elite. Greed indeed!

  8. Once again, the Gong Show-level of university administrative talent that has plagued UMass Dartmouth for decades has struck again.

    Combine that with our lightweight amateur-hour political representation up on Beacon Hill, the greed of local carpet-bagger Donald Trump wanna-bee developers (who couldn’t care less about the region), turn-style university leadership, and local politicians that can’t get out of their own way, and the students and area residents are left out in cold.

    And Mayor Sullivan is correct about former UMD chancellor and con-artist carpet-bagger Robert Johnson. At the time of his hiring, everybody knew that Johnson was mismatch for the university; knew that the university was a ‘pass thru’/stepping stone for his own ambitions, and out n’ out knew he was untalented and inexperienced at running a multi-layered, complex institution (his previous college was a tiny, podunk college in the center of Massachusetts).

    Lastly, no thought given to all the incoming new students who decided to attend the university because of the downtown CVPA campus. Broken promises and lies. “Well, too bad students; sucks to be you at the moment.” Yet, it’s par for course for UMD -an institution with a history of blindsiding and pulling the rug out on students. The school’s motto is ‘Leap before you look’.

  9. So, I have read all of the history produced by this ShitStorm and it brings to mind the closing lines of the fondly remembered TV show “The Life of Riley”…. “What a revolting development this is”.

  10. I grew up nearby and am an artist teaching in a large art dept. at a liberal arts college in upstate NY. I am always heartened when former students from UMass CVPA turn up (in many ways-applying for teaching positions, as artists in our gallery, etc.) and it happened more and more as the school became better known and more “prestigious” as in good (!)
    I remember the Star store when it was a store-having the arts campus downtown was only good for New Bedford, as they are for every city (show me a city that hasn’t benefited from an art community settling into it-EVERY TIME it enlivens a city and, thus, brings adjacent revenue.)
    This is a shameful game of pointing fingers and letting something good slip through fingers. Artists bring good to the places they inhabit and all too often, are the ones who bear the brunt of that success-they can no longer afford the costs of living in an increasingly interesting (read “pricey”) area or the powers that be are clueless about the arts and don’t prioritize them…all of the above. This will hurt NB and I feel horrible for the students and faculty forced to move out in this way. My grad school studio was in a former shoe factory in downtown Baltimore and if that had happened to me I don’t know if I’d have finished my degree.
    From the Mayor, to the UMD president, the Chancellor, the Governor, the property owner (and others no doubt) this is on you. Shame.

  11. So do we now call it Bed, Bath, & UMass; or UMass, Bath, & Beyond? this is a disgusting show of greed and dishonesty.

  12. The 1.00 deal to return it back UMD after 20 years is a deal that Downey did not want to complete. The possibilities for this building today are not what they were 22 years ago. Who was responsible for PM? Downey received 2.7M yearly but it looks like little PM was done. WINNER, Downey 50M in lease payments, little maint. over 20 years and he still owns the building.

  13. But NB will keep electing these inept fools. No wonder the greater Boston pols have all the power and have for decades. Montigny is a legend only in his own mind. Clearly none of them have much clout on Beacon Hill. I worked for the state and with state building leases. DCAMM could put a short term lease extension in place in less than a week if Downey was agreeable to it.

  14. I assume some of these state politicians don’t understand or appreciate art. Many are all politically ambitious former lawyers. They may not even know or care that many well known artists lived in New Bedford at one time and/or had studios downtown. Among them was Albert Bierdstadt. Just take a look inside the Whaling Museum to see how many artists were here at one time. How about writing an article about them to refresh people’s memories or educate them? My mother went to Swain School and then to Traphagen in New York City. Her uncle taught at Swain School for awhile before moving out west. That’s all part of New Bedford’s history of being a welcome home to aspiring artists. This disaster tells me that we need a different mix of people in politics representing New Bedford. They all seem to be cut from the same cloth and so far, nobody has taken responsibility for this unfortunate turn of events. A thriving art culture is just as important for New Bedford’s future success as the wind turbine industry, but I wonder if our state senators, mayor and other politicians — or UMass bureaucrats — really care.

  15. Another scenario: Why didn’t UMass buy it for $1 and then sell it as surplus for $3M? I can imagine that arts programs are contracting, and perhaps relocating the school was inevitable. But overpaying for rent then missing this opportunity just when the commuter rail extension was approved (although still far off), makes no sense. A local comp: The Bristol building, about a third or quarter of the size, sold a few years ago for less than $500,000.

  16. Elected officials that are responsible for management in our government and THEY DON’T READ THE FINE PRINT! This fuasco is mostly Montigny’s seeing he was at the forefront taking all the credit when it began!

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