What’s next for UMass Dartmouth arts? School isn’t saying

What’s next for UMass Dartmouth arts? School isn’t saying

Sarah Valinezhad came from Iran. “I chose this school when I had other options,” she sighed. “I came here for the Star Store.”

Yaren Yildiz came from Turkey. “Of course I’m disappointed,” she said, looking into the fluorescent expanse of the former Bed Bath & Beyond — the pale new home of the region’s flagship arts program. “This is the place, unfortunately.”

The longer journey on that day, however, belonged to Vanessa DiMase. The undergraduate senior originally hails from Rhode Island — not too far down the road — but she had ridden an almost hour-long shuttle from UMass Dartmouth’s main campus, only 1.6 miles away. To return to her dorm after class, she would board another nearly hour-long shuttle.

“The bus ride is ridiculous,” DiMase said. The route heads first into New Bedford before doubling back to drop students off at the former home products store, off busy Route 6. “It’s just not a viable option to get to class on time.”

Everything has felt “chaotic” — a word multiple students used to describe this past year — ever since UMass Dartmouth left its downtown New Bedford arts campus known as the Star Store. Graduate student activists have spent much of their year protesting the administration after lost or significantly reduced classes. Their most significant demand is a partial refund of tuition.

All to no avail.

As the school year ends, administrators have not provided any answers about what shape the arts program will take next semester, including where students might expect classes to happen. Nor have administrators entertained tuition reimbursements, despite student complaints that the university has failed to deliver services in ways that, they say, border on fraud.

Art students say they’ve protested like their careers and livelihoods are at stake, because that’s exactly what they feel is happening. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Student organizers say they’ve protested like their careers and livelihoods are at stake, because that’s exactly what they feel is happening. And, in the process of questioning the university, they’ve also uncovered the cost of moving out of the Star Store — at least $364,000 — at the same time that the university has failed to provide them with meaningful redress or, they say, recognition. 

Meanwhile students say that the university’s miscommunication and mismanagement have wrought more immediate consequences, too.

DiMase, the senior whose final college semesters included those hours-long commutes (the narrow sidewalks beside a roaring four-lane highway made a walk even less desirable), also faced health concerns. When the school moved her painting class into a basement room on campus that lacked proper filtration or even windows, she started experiencing heavy migraines.

“Noxious,” is how she described the room where she spends three hours, twice per week. That doesn’t include the six or more hours she’s expected to work on paintings outside of class time. DiMase said she talked to her professor, who is accommodating and allows her to step out of the room to take breaks. The professor apologized, DiMase said, but told her there was nowhere else to go.

The Star Store’s abrupt closure still reverberates around UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA). The art college’s on-campus building is overcrowded, with some studios relocated into the same rooms where undergraduate classes take place. Diminished access to equipment, studios, and galleries has changed how (and whether) students can complete and show their work. Some classes have been stuffed into unconventional locations, like DiMase’s basement painting course, or even shifted totally online at the last minute. 

A professor says the faculty has suffered, too.

“The biggest destruction has been for the students,” said one CVPA faculty member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. About the faculty’s own experience this year, “I’m sad to say it is a really toxic work environment,” the professor said.

The aftermath of the Star Store has been highly political, according to this faculty member, with professors “jockeying for resources,” which are limited, and using charged emotions and administrative shortcomings as leverage. “I’ve never experienced a place as fractious and territorial as this,” the professor said.

However, the professor added: “The administration at the CVPA was really blindsided by all this. Early on they got a lot of undue flack for what went down …. That said, the administration of UMass Dartmouth as a whole is culpable. The buck stops with them.”

Few answers from the university

Despite multiple requests dating back to February, the university’s spokesperson, Ryan Merrill, has been unable to make university administrators available for an interview about the arts program’s future. The only provided statement from Merrill read that the university had hired an architect to “reconfigure space within our CVPA building.” Furthermore, the architect would help the university to “explore additional options to provide outstanding facilities for all our arts programs on our campus.”

What is the timeline for these updates? Will the reconfigured space include designs for the graduate students, or will they stay at the former Bed Bath & Beyond? Merrill could not say.

The current home of the region’s flagship graduate arts school is the former Bed Bath & Beyond storefront in Dartmouth. The landlord holds a “kick-out” clause that could remove the university on short notice. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

The Light asked about further concerns this month, including how the university recruited for the incoming class of arts students; what has been the plan to retain faculty; and could course offerings change due to faculty retention, student enrollment, or the not-yet-settled facilities question? Merrill did not respond.

While questions linger, the future seems uncertain for many at the CVPA. Some faculty are looking for other jobs. The same professor, preferring to remain anonymous, said turnover will be an issue. “It’s on people’s minds.”

As for students: “I don’t love the situation, but I will continue,” said Yaren Yildiz, the graduate student from Turkey. “I will stay for the community,” she said, referencing her newfound classmates and professors.

But it’s hard for anyone to imagine the fall semester. “If I were in a new class thinking about applying,” Yildiz said, “it might be hard to know what it looks like.”

Lacking communication, students became investigators

When CVPA students got an email from UMass Dartmouth last summer that said their home, the Star Store, was suddenly shutting down, young artists who specialized in ceramics, sculpture, and oil painting began to act more like private investigators.

Using public records requests, connections with sympathetic faculty, and old-school investigation techniques, they worked to overcome what they describe as a jaw-dropping lack of transparency from the university.

For example, when administrators declined to tell students what would happen to the truckloads of their studio supplies and equipment, two graduate students decided to stake out the trucks. When the movers’ caravan departed New Bedford, Fallon Navarro and Jill McEvoy tailed it for about 5 miles, until they discovered where the university planned to relocate: the deserted Bed Bath & Beyond storefront they now know so well.

Jill McEvoy and Fallon Navarro worked out of donated space, at Hatch Street Studios, for months while CVPA classes were delayed after the Star Store’s closure. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Other graduate students have uncovered public records that show UMass Dartmouth’s hasty and unplanned exit from downtown New Bedford cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Costs for the move were high, and the university didn’t have time to shop around, with only two weeks to close out the Star Store. Dumpsters and storage containers cost more than $38,000. Moving materials cost about $22,000. Special rigging to remove the industrial-size kilns, over $4,000. Other containers, bags, and — of course — labor brought the total moving expense to more than $364,000.

Suddenly lacking dozens of classrooms, galleries, and offices, UMass Dartmouth started bidding for electricians, painters, masons, carpenters, roofers, and other contractors, according to publicly available work solicitations and records requested by The Light. But when asked if these contractors would work on improvements to the on-campus CVPA building, the former Bed Bath & Beyond building, or other buildings on campus, the university could not provide specifics.

The university did not provide the “dollar amount of each contract,” or the “specific campus building or satellite location” where work was required, nor the “expected timeline for completion” — all information which The Light requested.

The response from Ryan Merrill: “These are general contracts so that we have companies on call when needed. There are no specifics.”

Yet improvements have come to the former Bed Bath & Beyond building. At first, it was little more than a wide and hollow storage warehouse. Now, a backroom has been constructed with new kilns. Wiring and exhaust vents connect to the walls and ceiling.

So, is this the new graduate art school? Students and faculty don’t know.

Other records indicate a shaky commitment to the new space, which graduate students fear could represent a shaky commitment to the program. The university’s contract with the building owner — which was obtained by arts students’ records requests — stipulates a rent payment of zero dollars.

In return, the landlord holds a “kick-out clause,” in which it can remove the university as a tenant if any paying customer signs a 12-month lease.

The university’s own advertisements to potential students do not provide any further clues. In fact, the CVPA still advertises a New Bedford location: “The facilities on the main Dartmouth campus and our New Bedford campuses are a source of pride for our students and faculty and are among the finest in New England,” reads its website.

But the CVPA’s only confirmed presence in New Bedford is donated space in the basement of the New Bedford Art Museum.

“They’re not being truthful,” said Sarah Valinezhad, the student who came all the way from Iran.

Without a place, students found their own

When students didn’t have anywhere to show their work, the community rallied to help them.

Nick Gula, president of the maintenance union at UMass Dartmouth, used union funds to help students rent out a small storefront in downtown New Bedford. There, in December, they showed dynamic sculptures that looked like retreating ice floes; an interactive ceramic and weaving project that, when touched, chimed like a bell; and other towering, intricate pottery that students (and the university itself) had since lost the ability to make when the largest kilns went in the dumpsters.

Students invited their professors and other community members. A healthy crowd came to play live music, pour drinks, and share conversation. In all, dozens milled among the artworks.

Fallon Navarro, the graduate student who has acted as a lead organizer, said that students needed some way to show their work after all the traditional markers — like the presentations and critiques — were taken away or unrecognizably altered.

The shuffle inside the small storefront was a reminder that the downtown arts campus was more than just classrooms for arts students. When it shuttered, so too did a robotics lab that taught young people to code, a public radio station bureau focused on community news, and a public-facing gallery space that fostered the growing arts economy.

Most public officials, however, have conceded that there is no path for the campus to return to New Bedford. Some have shifted their energy to mourning.

As students and community members celebrated their own art in their own space, looming only a few blocks away was the empty Star Store. James Lawton, a former CVPA professor and department chair, wrote in a letter to Gov. Maura Healey about the last time the Star Store was empty, in 1998.

“Soon after being hired at UMass Dartmouth I was given a tour of the Star Store. What one saw on the approach was a crumbling Beaux Arts building surrounded by a chain link fence — so to protect pedestrians from falling debris. Once inside we ducked the pigeons who had free reign of the once grand interior. From the top floor you could see five levels down to the basement through the hole where the nation’s first escalator once moved shoppers at the Star Store Dry Goods in the most affluent city in America.”

The Star Store today is becoming what it was, the same “debilitated landmark in downtown New Bedford” that Lawton first saw more than 20 years ago. 

What is next for the arts program — and arts on the South Coast — has not yet been answered.

Email Colin Hogan at [email protected]

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