By Steve Urbon
June 17, 2014 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — The year 1990 “was a dark time” for arts in this city, said John Nieman, who almost 25 years ago co-founded the feisty Gallery X.
The former Star Store downtown remained boarded up year after year. Art galleries didn’t exist unless one counted a frame shop and the collection in the city library.
It was the year that the historic schooner Ernestina was being promoted as an attraction to bring people to the core city, and the fledgling Downtown New Bedford was urging downtown shops to get out onto the sidewalk. There were demonstrations of maritime trades.
That’s when Nieman and fellow Swain School of Design alumnus Chuck Hauck hatched the idea of using a vacant Spring Street storefront for a few weeks to showcase the work of the many artists scattered throughout the city.
“The line was out the door on the first day,” Hauck recalls. The course was clear: Open a permanent gallery, one geared not to the display of well-established artists with national reputations but very local ones, maybe not even art school trained.
The new Gallery X rented the Spring Street space. It was a harbinger of great things to come.
“People told us we wouldn’t last a year,” Nieman said. But with purely volunteer labor, Gallery X took root. In a few years the gallery would get an offer from Rev. Richard Kellaway, a folk art collector who decided to buy the 1855 First Universalist Church on William Street and lease it to Gallery X on friendly terms.
It needed work, and it had to get an elevator for handicapped access, the roof leaked and a huge church organ had to be scrapped after its manufacturer said the water damage was beyond repair.
But progress continued. The Gallery bought the building from Kellaway after only a couple of years. Grant money began coming in from, among others, the Island Foundation.
Almost 25 years later, Gallery X is alive and well and calling for entries for its 25th annual Public Hanging, where any artist can enter the show for merely $15.
This is tame compared to some of what’s gone on. Gallery X staged several “Sex at the X” exhibits of erotic art, which rattled some sensibilities before the uproar died down.
“Actually the first year it was more artful” than later on, said Nieman. “Then it got a little too graphic. People were more out to shock.”
As the years passed, other galleries and studios began to populate the downtown, occupying much of that vacant space. The National Park arrived. The Star Store became UMass Dartmouth’s arts campus. The city opened its own art museum. The whaling museum’s art collection continued to grow.
And the arts economy brought New Bedford to No. 7 city in the nation for the arts as a percentage of its local economy. More and more artists and artisans are migrating to the city.
“We’ve had Boston artists in the last 10 years or so,” said Nieman. “When we saw that we knew that we crossed the threshold.”
What Hauck and Nieman hope is that the coming 25th Annual Public Hanging will be the biggest one yet, with the 35 or so members exhibiting alongside what is likely to be dozens of others.
DATES TO REMEMBER
Gallery X’s Public Hanging:
July 2 — Aug. 31.
Deadline for submissions:
June 29 at 3 p.m.