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UMass Dartmouth arts college leaving downtown New Bedford

The former Star Store department store in New Bedford became the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts in 2001, helping to spark a period of renewal for downtown New Bedford.
Marc N. Belanger
Wikimedia Commons
The former Star Store department store in New Bedford became the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts in 2001, helping to spark a period of renewal for downtown New Bedford.

UMass Dartmouth plans to move its College of Visual and Performing Arts out of downtown New Bedford, effective immediately.

Chancellor Mark Fuller announced his decision yesterday in a letter to faculty and staff.

In an interview, he said funding for the $2.7 million annual lease was scrapped from the state budget shortly before the budget hit the governor’s desk.

He said the university can’t afford the payments and has been advised by its legal counsel not to remain in the building without a lease.

The decision has been met with shock and disappointment by artists, downtown business owners, and others in the community.

Artist Mark Dion, who has been a visiting scholar at UMass Dartmouth, said the decision is devastating.

“That space being abandoned is just going to be catastrophic,” he said. “Yanking it now is sort of admitting defeat and also squandering all the great work that's been done over the decades since the Star Store’s been there.”

The College of Visual and Performing Arts, or CVPA, has occupied the Star Store building since 2001. Many observers have traced the revival of downtown New Bedford, in part, to the presence of the art school.

Dion said moving the arts program out of downtown New Bedford will hurt both the city and the school — including the program’s ability to attract students and faculty.

“I think it's going to be very hard to attract people to a campus in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Artists need to be in the city. They need a context.”

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said he learned of the chancellor’s decision only minutes before the announcement, even though he has tried to help in the negotiations that have been going on since the lease expired in 2021.

“To say that I reacted with surprise and dismay is an understatement,” the mayor said in a written comment. “The CVPA has anchored the downtown’s cultural scene for over twenty years, extending the century-long work of its predecessor, the Swain School of Design.”

State legislators, UMass, building owner Paul Downey, and the Healey administration have been involved in the negotiations. Mitchell said he thought a new agreement for the Star Store was forthcoming.

He said the state has long been aware of the need to fund the acquisition, maintenance and operation of the Star Store.

“The notion that the University’s decision ultimately hinged on whether a particular line item was included in the new state budget strains credulity,” he said.

Responding to the outcry in the community, the chancellor said closing the building is not what he wanted.

“Losing access to this facility ... is hard on our students, It’s hard on our faculty, and it's hard on the university. And it’s hard on New Bedford, too. I absolutely understand that.”

But the negotiations were not successful, he said.

“We’ve been working for about two years … to try to find a solution that would enable us to stay in the building,” he said. “But we didn't get to a reasonable solution that satisfied — all the parties, I think, had good intentions. And so now we have no option, honestly, but to vacate the building because we don't have a lease.”

In addition to the CVPA and the school’s art gallery, the building houses the UMass Dartmouth Workers’ Education Program, which offers adult basic education and English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, including ESOL classes designed specifically for students pursuing certification as a certified nursing assistant.

With just three weeks until the fall semester begins, finding places for all of the Star Store programs will require last-minute juggling and create new expenses.

“It's going to cost the university significant resources just to move out of there,” Fuller said.

State Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, said the focus of recent negotiations has been on how to transfer ownership of the Star Store to UMass Dartmouth.

“This provision was a critical part of the initial lease signed 20 years ago by all parties,” he said. “In the two decades since, millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been committed to the Star Store campus.”

A state senator from New Bedford, Sen. Mark Montigny, has been widely credited with leading the legislative work to create and fund the Star Store as an arts campus.

Montigny said the Legislature has paid for the building with more than 20 years of appropriations.

In a written statement, he said UMass Dartmouth and the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, or DCAMM, should have done more to solve the problem.

“I am deeply disappointed that DCAMM and the university neglected multiple opportunities to meet their basic responsibility to protect taxpayers and students by neglecting to secure the campus in accordance with my original legislation that created and funded this campus as well as state law signed just last year,” he said.

The lease and state law have required that the building be transferred to UMass for $1, according to Montigny.

Montigny and the mayor pledged to work with the Healey administration to try to reverse the closure of the Star Store.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.