NEW BEDFORD -- Whalers made New Bedford's history, but artists and craftspeople may make the city's future.
The rundown city prospered as the world capital of whaling in the mid-19th century, but the painters have been around for a long time, too. In the 1800s, maritime painters such as William Bradford and Charles Sydney Raleigh made their livings here, brandishing their brushes to depict torrid seascapes and majestic ships.
Today, maritime painters still thrive here. Land- and seascape painters such as Robert Duff and Arthur Moniz run successful galleries crammed with prints and paintings in the downtown New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park. They are just one side of a thriving art scene in New Bedford that is one part traditional maritime, one part on-the-edge contemporary, and one part grass roots.
"When I came to grad school here in 1988, everyone got to New Bedford, said 'ugh,' and made it their intention to leave," says artist Nancy Hayes. "Now, more and more people are climbing on the New Bedford bandwagon."
More artists add up to more galleries and cultural events. In time it could mean more shopping, too, for the work produced by the high concentration of crafts artists brought to the area by the University of Massachusetts Program in Artisanry. For the moment, Hayes says, "It's a great community, and artists find great resources in industry here. It's an affordable place for studios. The Catch-22 is there's no access for selling."
Except for next weekend, when Hayes's studio building, 21 Cove St., holds its annual holiday sale, and 25 artists and craftsmen will peddle their original works.
Jeweler Don Hoaglund decided that the best way to sell his work was to open his own shop. He runs Pegasus Artisans Gallery and Studio on William Street, around the corner from the Whaling Museum, on the edge of the National Historic Park.
"The location means a lot to the people here," Hoaglund says. He's a burly, affable, bearded fellow, and at first glance you wouldn't associate him with the delicate work of a jeweler. "The area is experiencing a resurgence. . . . The community of artists is a good little group, and it's getting bigger and bigger."
Venues like Art Works! and Gallery X are the bedrock of that community. Gallery X is a volunteer-run space. "They encourage everybody," says Hoaglund. "The art is more from the heart there, rather than an intellectual exercise that only certain people can be a part of." ArtWorks! has three galleries and a variety of classes.
If New Bedford is a hidden cultural hotbed, AHA! Night in New Bedford will help visitors discover it. AHA, an acronym that stands for art, history, and architecture, started in 1998 as an arts advocacy group, playing up the city's cultural resources with a night of free access and entertainment.
"Any AHA! Night has tons of openings, the museums are free, there will be a play or a reading, a children's performance, a walking tour," says director Margie Jones, an artist herself. "A lot of people don't believe they belong at a gallery opening, but AHA! feels like a celebration."
The next AHA! Night, on Dec. 11, plays up the holidays with a performance of "The Nutcracker," carol singing, and a variety of holiday arts and crafts shows.
On the tour is the New Bedford Art Museum, where "From the Ground Up: Art of the Skateboard Culture," curated by locals Hannah Haines and John Cox, is on view.
"We have a big population of skateboarders in New Bedford, and there were letters to the editor of the Standard-Times about these kids getting kicked out of downtown, getting their boards taken away," says Haines. "There's a bad rep associated with skateboarders. In fact, skateboarding is highly stylized, inventive, and evolving. There's the sport aspect, but for many people it's just personal and creative."
The show features jazzy, punky painting on skateboards as well as photographs and paintings by skateboarders.
On the more traditional end of the spectrum, Duff makes his maritime paintings in a studio upstairs from his gallery in the National Historic Park. "New Bedford has a real legacy of Hudson River, Luminist and maritime painters," Duff says. Indeed, you can see the work of Duff's forefathers on exhibit at the Whaling Museum, across the street from his gallery.
Around the corner, John Magnan holds court in a storefront space. You might find him there drilling into the arc of a tree branch. His current body of work entails shaving wood down to one elegant paper-thin layer -- a single ring of a tree's growth. To one side of his studio stands a giant bench.
Magnan made the bench as a student at the UMass Program in Artisanry, which draws students of woodworking, metallurgy, ceramics, and other crafts from around the country. Many stay in the area. Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence offers strong courses in craft, has become a region thick with furniture makers and jewelers, potters and woodworkers.
Two years ago, UMass renovated an old department store and brought its fine arts and artisanry programs from nearby Dartmouth to downtown New Bedford, where Lasse Antonsen heads up the University Art Gallery. Up now, in conjunction with a show at the Fuller Museum in Brockton, is an exhibition of work by graduates of the artisanry program. It's a visual feast. .
The University Art Gallery doesn't ordinarily toot the horns of its alums. It's too busy mounting large thematic shows, or exhibitions of work by heavy-hitting, internationally known artists such as photographer Duane Michals and painter Nancy Spero.
Antonsen likes his spacious new digs, which are more accessible to the general public than the on-campus gallery was. "One of the nice things about being here is people come to the city," he says. "We get 10,000 visitors a year."
Just 15 minutes away in Fall River, at Bristol Community College, another new gallery has opened. The Grimshaw-Gudewicz Gallery is a big space, at 2,000 square feet, with vaulted ceilings and skylights.
Kathleen Hancock came on as director when the gallery opened three years ago, after the city and the college had spent years fund-raising and building the space.
"The students come in here, and often it's the first time they've been in a gallery, and maybe even in a museum," Hancock says. "We want it to be seen as an adventure."
Hancock has mounted ambitious shows of contemporary art, aimed at provoking students "to think about process, and how is content defined by process," she says. Last year she invited New York artist Mary Giehl to create an installation based on a fire at a Fall River textile mill in the late 1800s. Giehl used the ample space to create a scale model of the factory, 50 feet long.
"It was ambitious to do this in a town that's not commonly thought of as a cultural mecca," Hancock says of the gallery.
It is just such places, where industry has come and often gone, that artists flock to for affordable studio space. Already artists are quickening the pulse of New Bedford. Fall River may soon follow.
Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer who lives in Haverhill.