UMass Dartmouth’s CVPA Star Store at 20 years has a legacy to build upon

Sep 15, 2021

NEW BEDFORD, MA - The University of Massachusetts College of Visual and Performing Arts Star Store campus occupies a treasured space in the City of New Bedford. For many decades Star Store defined downtown shopping and wove itself into the fabric of this community.  Yet twenty years ago this month, the physical structure at 715 Purchase Street assumed a new role. One of more profound consequence to the city and region. In 2001, the vacant former Star Store was transformed into the urban satellite campus of the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts, thereafter beloved anew as CVPA Star Store.

As CVPA Star Store turns 20 years old, its impact on the cultural landscape is being evaluated once again with an eye toward where it’s been - and where it’s going. Nothing less than CVPA Star Store 2.0 is being envisioned to build upon the solid legacy and achievements of the last twenty years even as the next twenty beckon. The goal, says CVPA Dean Lawrence Jenkens is to maintain the downtown campus as a vital hub of artistic achievement for the region. Star Store 2.0 will retain the core elements of what has made it successful, while embracing new fields of design study into the future. That means textiles will mix with virtual reality, and fine arts will brush up against gaming. 

Looking ahead, Jenkens and UMass Dartmouth see a CVPA Star Store that drives design in all its forms in the region, just as the first twenty years of the school helped drive arts and culture in New Bedford and for the South Coast region.    

IN THE BEGINNING....CVPA Star Store is celebrating 20 years in downtown New Bedford even as one of the persons most responsible for it springing into existence believes its launch represented the biggest gamble of his still young political career. Massachusetts State Sen. Mark Montigny had only been elected in 1993 to the seat he retains to this day. Even so, well short of a decade into office he drafted the audacious legislation which would create the CVPA Star Store campus. His office writes in a statement, “(that legislation) authorized the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) to enter into a long-term lease on behalf of UMass Dartmouth. This is a very unusual and unique financing strategy for a state-funded project. 

 “Normally, capital projects are funded through the state’s capital planning process that relies heavily on state bonds (i.e. debt). The Commonwealth has a so-called “bond cap” which dictates how much debt the state can take on for its capital needs.  

“At the time of Star Store’s initial creation, the Commonwealth was at its bond cap. The traditional method of financing a state project simply wasn’t available. With that in mind, the Senator worked with then Secretary of Administration and Finance, Charlie Baker, on a unique financing strategy. The 20-year lease paid by DCAMM to the property developer would finance the many necessary renovations and repairs to the building.” It didn't end there - and it still doesn’t. Each year, Sen. Montigny and his team ensure that the state budget includes the $2.7 million authorization to fund the lease payments and ongoing maintenance. 

Staffer Audra Riding from his office writes, “Senator Montigny is very proud of the thriving institution and central beacon for arts and culture that Star Store has become. He will be the first to tell you that 20 years ago no one really knew whether it would be a success. He simply saw the natural assets in the city, namely the talented artists and musicians who could make a project like this thrive. If the project failed, however, this could have easily ended his political career (because he secured the long-term lease/taxpayer investment). Thankfully, the total opposite happened.” 

GROWING UP TOGETHER  

Around the time CVPA Star Store was established, New Bedford was at the beginning of the creative renaissance that still captures the city’s imagination to this day. Within a space of several years, The New Bedford National Historic Whaling Park, the New Bedford Art Museum, and AHA! New Bedford all sprung to life in downtown New Bedford. 

“We all grew up together,” says AHA! Director Lee Heald. She calls CVPA Star Store an important partner in that journey, and places the downtown campus into a much broader historical context. “CVPA Star Store fits into the legacy institutions of design and learning have had in New Bedford,” she says. She references the former New Bedford Textile School as an apt example. It opened its doors at 1213 Purchase Street around the turn of the 20th century. By century’s end, the building was repurposed after the textile school closed. A studio arts building housed in that space was put to use by Southeastern Massachusetts University (SMU), the forerunner of today’s University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in 1988 after it absorbed the Swain School of Design. Swain itself enjoyed over a century of artistic life in the city.  Even more, Heald believes CVPA Star Store caught the arc of urban redevelopment at just the right time when it opened in 2001, as arts and culture and placemaking came to the fore and helped reinvigorate urban economies. 

“Location and people have made a difference in New Bedford,” she says. “Placemaking is important where support is diverse and strong.” She continues, “CVPA Star Store has been nothing less than an excellent partner over the past twenty years, not only to the AHA! program but to the creative life of the city overall.”

“They are great collaborators,” she notes. “We’ve been through the growing pains together and recognize that all community investment is a process of evolution, not an end state of being. You’re never at the finish line; you’re always running.” 

She characterizes plans for Star Store 2.0 as the synthesis of this idea. Any platform, she remarks, should make it possible to imagine what change can be like.  CVPA Star Store, she concludes, has helped create a different portrait of New Bedford for twenty years, built on a traditional model of the economy of New Bedford as reflected in its textile manufacturing heritage, but which is also something capable of leaning into the future and embracing a variety of people to effect systematic change. 

STAR STORE 2.0: THE NEXT TWENTY YEARS

Even as UMass Dartmouth CVPA Star Store celebrates its twentieth anniversary in September 2021, Dean Lawrence Jenkens is excited to share the details of what the next twenty years in downtown New Bedford can look like.  The vision for tomorrow is referred to as Star Store 2.0 by UMass Dartmouth administrators, faculty, staff and students and has been outlined in anticipation of this milestone year.  The blueprint reveals that enrollments at UMass Dartmouth are growing in graphic design, illustration, animation, and game art. CVPA has added a BFA concentration in fashion design and interior architecture and design in recent years, after it assumed the portfolio of the late Mt. Ida College

However, the majority of CVPA design programs are still housed on the Main Campus in Dartmouth and limited space on the Main Campus stymies growth in CVPA programs.  

Therefore, working in partnership with local and state government and the private sector, CVPA proposes that the Star Store Campus be transformed into a state-of-the-art facility for design and technology in the arts, essentially a Design Hub that will brand UMass D as a destination school for the visual and performing arts, and New Bedford and Southeastern Massachusetts as a center for contemporary design across several in-demand industries.

Dean Jenkens says that a reimagining of the Star Store campus is about addition, not subtraction. Naturally, the popular galleries which have welcomed so many visitors from near and far will remain a feature of the building. It will still house the heavy equipment which the building was designed for when it was first redeveloped. It will also continue to house facilities for CVPA’s ceramics and jewelry programs, including kilns, ovens, and metal fabrication equipment.

A second phase of redevelopment into Star Store 2.0 will, though, allow the campus to accommodate so much more. Like showcasing new and existing interdisciplinary programs such as the collaboration between CVPA and the College of Engineering to create a Game Design program (in collaboration with MassDiGi). 

And allowing the room for a design concentration which would include graphic design, animation, game art, illustration, interior architecture, and fashion design. Additionally, the Star Store campus will provide a home for the Music and Technology initiative, spotlighting CVPA’s commitment to the intersection of the arts and technology while making these pursuits available to the public.

Star Store 2.0 also outlines plans for a Design Incubator, providing young entrepreneurs affordable opportunities to build design businesses through access to office space, a smart conference room, and most importantly, access to the students and facilities of CVPA’s design programs.

A LASTING COMMUNITY CONNECTION  Embarking on a career of entrepreneurship in the arts is precisely what Alison Wells did after graduating from CVPA with a MFA in Fine Arts in 2007. Although, that wasn't her intention when she began her course of study.  “I intended to graduate and then move on,” says the artist. But, she began feeling something “magical” in the air - and noticing something happening in the downtown and city surrounding CVPA Star Store.  “Everybody was staying!” she recalls. Students were graduating, yet choosing to remain in New Bedford rather than return to their home country or state. 

She attributes it to the intense sense of community that developed around CVPA Star Store. “There was something magical about downtown New Bedford,” she says. “I was able to draw inspiration from the location and it ignited a creative sense within me.” 

Fellow students and artists were renting studios downtown, displaying work at galleries and taking part in AHA! nights. “I realized that I wanted to be part of that,” Wells says.  And she certainly is now. This October, 2021, her Alison Wells Fine Art Gallery & Studio, a few blocks from CVPA Star Store at 106 William Street, will celebrate its seventh anniversary in downtown New Bedford. Even as the artist who now embodies the very sense of community she discovered all those years ago displays her work at another landmark destination - the New Bedford Whaling Museum. 

Fittingly, that show is entitled “In The Neighborhood,” and it is dedicated to images from and about...New Bedford.

“There’s a strong sense of community here,” she says. It was fostered by CVPA Star Store professors, then its students, and remains palpable to this day. 

The CVPA Star Store experience, she remarks, is never cold - but a warm embrace.