Color me skeptical.

You can use old-fashioned watercolors and acrylics to portray me as an alienated painter. Or if you want to be hipper, color me by way of a computer as an intrepid underworld hero.

But whatever you use for a medium, color me skeptical.

I’m talking about my skepticism of the explanations given by UMass Dartmouth CVPA Dean Lawrence Jenkens as to why fine arts courses like ceramics, textiles and printmaking are disappearing from the Star Store campus in downtown New Bedford while at the same time, more contemporary courses like gaming art, fashion design and interior architecture and design are exploding.

It’s not that I don’t think Jenkens is right that many young people would rather major in the nouvelle cuisine of CAD arts than more traditional aesthetic pursuits. Computer-aided design has certainly changed the art world as well as everything else in 2022.

That’s not a bad thing. There need to be CAD courses in any modern-day arts school. What I’m objecting to is Jenkens saying that the school is now running some fine arts courses like textile-making from looms only once every two years. It’s almost like he’s bought into a paradigm that a state school can only have a practical arts school and not afford the fine arts programs.

A massive kiln at UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store Campus in downtown New Bedford. Credit: Hugh Fanning / For The New Bedford Light

And what ever happened to the pride, and great expense, that went into installing all these looms and kilns for pottery in the downtown campus just 20 years ago?

Jenkens pretty much claimed the changes are because very few students are interested in the traditional arts anymore. But I find it hard to believe that in just 16 short years, no one under the age of 30 wants to learn about painting, sculpture or metals and jewelry-making.

According to the university’s own numbers, enrollment in the CVPA’s undergraduate and graduate courses has dropped from an all-time high of just over 800 students in 2006 to fewer than 500 students this year. 

But is it really the students who are not interested in traditional fine arts or is it that the university is not interested anymore?

Everything is a numbers game, of course. And especially in an era when tuition at a state university costs north of $12,700 a year for a full-time graduate course load. And that’s for an in-state Massachusetts resident. For an out-of-state student you’re talking about $10,000 more.

Students, and their parents, spending that kind of money want a return on their investment. They want to be able to get a job in their field right out of college making good money. How else could they afford the loans at a so-called state school? It’s not a secret that the cost of public higher education has finally begun to depress the numbers of people who feel they can afford to enroll. And that’s the case whether students concentrate in the most practical of majors or the most idealistic. 

But set aside the probably overstated assertion that a computer-aided design major is really a guarantee of having a well-paying job lined up after graduating and concentrate on the traditional fine arts and liberal arts degrees. It’s not really new news that students who major in painting or sculpture or English or history have no great chance of finding a great job right out of school in the way that a nursing or engineering major does. But many of those same students will eventually find their way into very well-paying jobs in the business world, or will go back to law school and maybe find some security that way. For a smaller number, you’re talking about artists or teachers or journalists, who will simply continue to practice their craft for the love of the job or some idea of public service unrelated to financial stability.

Ceramics storage at UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store Campus in downtown New Bedford. Credit: Hugh Fanning / For The New Bedford Light

What we’re really talking about here is the way we fund higher education in Massachusetts and the country as a whole. Unlike in Europe, we have never really committed to it as a right, indeed an economic necessity, the way other countries have.

The problem I have is that so much at UMass Dartmouth, and the Massachusetts public university system in general, seems to go on behind the scenes. For example, in 2018, the five-campus university purchased Mount Ida College in Newton. The rationale was that the 74-acre campus close to Boston would become a Boston-area center for UMass Amherst that specialized in students looking for big city internships and study in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

But the secondary headline in that Mount Ida purchase was that UMass Dartmouth would absorb the following Mount Ida majors: textile design, game art (including animation), graphic design and interior architecture and design.

Those are the exact same design fields that are now growing at the STAR store campus in downtown New Bedford as the traditional fine arts courses contract. Coincidence? It doesn’t seem like that.

The UMass system has been planning this move for a long time now. There was even talk a few years ago that it might abandon the Star Store campus in downtown New Bedford in a cost-cutting move. That talk now seems to have subsided, and in reporter Anastasia Lennon’s fine story on the changes in the CVPA course offerings, Dean Jenkens is quoted as saying the school is committed to staying in the center city. But he is short on details on how that will work other than to say courses like gaming and fashion design are growing while the textile and ceramics studios lie unused or little used. Sculpture has already been moved back to the Dartmouth campus.

Talk to anyone who has been involved in the revival of downtown New Bedford over the last 20 years — from state Sen. Mark Montigny and Rep. Tony Cabral, to a succession of city mayors to the leaders of the business community — and they will tell you that the arrival of the UMass Dartmouth artists has been an integral part of the revival of downtown New Bedford and the city as whole. The city has even garnered national attention as an important and emerging arts scene.

It is not by accident that the Hatch Street Studios and Kilburn Mill have become an important part of the city’s economic revival.

Do those artists stay in New Bedford if the school that spawned them goes away? The College of Visual and Performing Arts is a successor to the formerly privately operated Swain School of Design. Those artists have been active in every great arts initiative in New Bedford over the last 30 years, from Gallery X to the Ropeworks Artists Condominiums to ArtWorks! to the factory studios.

Wake up New Bedford. Wake up UMass Dartmouth. You may be about to lose something incalculably valuable. You may be about to lose something on the basis of short-term dollars and cents that will cost you many more dollars and cents in the long run.

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