Infusion of Culture Helps Change Perception and Reality in SouthCoast

Silversmith Joost During hammers silver into a vinegar flask in the New Bedford studio he shares with his wife, Dianne Reilly, and fellow metalsmith Sue Aygarn Kowalski. Mr. During is one of many artists lured to this area by its affordability and burgeoning arts scene. Photo by Peter Pereira

By Don Cuddy
Standard Times Correspondent

When silversmith and designer Joost During, 36, arrived in the United States from Holland 10 years ago, he first settled in Rhode Island. But early last year, he and his wife Dianne Reilly, 40, who also works in metal, bought a home and a studio in New Bedford.
“It was much more affordable than Rhode Island, and we liked the place,” Mr. During said. “The art scene is really coming up and we wanted to be a part of that.”
Mr. During is renowned for his holloware and flatware designs for which he has won national awards, including the renowned Saul Bell Award in 2005. The couple share studio space with fellow metalsmith Sue Aygarn Kowalski, a UMass Dartmouth graduate.
Artists come in many categories, but all share the same dream: being able to make a living doing their own work.
Increasingly, the SouthCoast is appealing to the creative energies of many who feel excluded from bigger cities like Boston and Providence because of high costs. As artists migrate here, as new venues open and as new audiences await, there is a feeling in the arts community that the winter of discontent has begun to relinquish its hold on the region.
It is difficult to quantify the value that the arts contribute to our daily lives, but Katherine Knowles, executive director of the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, believes that promoting culture is vital to SouthCoast’s interests, both socially and economically.
“The success of the Zeiterion has become a source of pride to the community,” Ms. Knowles said, “but developers also know that attracting businesses to our region depends to a great extent on the quality of life that they can offer to their employees. The benefit of having a Zeiterion is that it shines a bright light on the city where we live. The theater has become part of the critical mass that will change perceptions about New Bedford.”
The Z’s varied lineup of performers in music, theater and dance has drawn many people to the area for the first time.
“Twenty percent of our audience comes here from Rhode Island and we have just begun to start attracting people from Boston,” Ms. Knowles said.
The Zeiterion’s programs along with the organizations it hosts — the New Bedford Festival Theatre and the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra — attracted a combined audience of 110,000 people in 2006 and that has had a positive impact far beyond the box office returns. “In this business the equation traditionally has been that $1 in ticket sales means $3 for the community. That is beginning to be true in New Bedford.”
On a more modest scale, the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River has been equally successful. A non-profit run by a small band of volunteers, the venue sits on the third floor of an old mill and features resident artists, a gallery and a performance space that has begun to attract an eclectic crowd.
“The Narrows has grown exponentially in the past three to five years but we’re just starting,” says Patrick Norton, president and booking agent. “Seventy percent of our audience comes from 15 miles away or more, and we had 12,000 people pass through the Narrows last year, including people from 13 states, as we know from the credit card receipts. They are a well-heeled crowd with disposable income and that is good news for the restaurants on Columbia Street. Audiences can also browse in the artists’ studios during evening shows.”
In Mattapoisett where the Rogers Gallery has been in business for 28 years, owner Louise Rogers has seen the art market expand enormously. Appreciation has increased beyond all expectation. “When people come in to look at the paintings, it’s like they are in a museum. You almost don’t want to interrupt them,” she said. “Twenty years ago, there were no places to show art, except the Swain gallery (at the former Swain School of Design). Now everything has risen together. More people are moving here year-round from Boston and New York and they want to support the arts. It means that I have been able to showcase more abstract work in addition to the ‘safe art.'”
A flourishing arts scene downtown and across SouthCoast could prove to be the final piece in solving the puzzle of economic redevelopment that has taxed the region for longer than anyone cares to remember.
“There is a synergy happening in town right now,” said Katherine Knowles, speaking of New Bedford, “and the restaurants, the Whaling Museum and the Art Museum are all doing their part to fuel that.”
Publication date: April 17, 2007

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