A man poses happily with a mural.

Elevating the Arts in the South Coast of Massachusetts

As Creative Commonwealth Initiative enters new phase, Rayana Grace and John Vasconcellos of the SouthCoast Community Foundation reflect on the new artists, work, and partnerships that celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the South Coast.

Over the past two years, we have seen a major shift in the arts and culture landscape in Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Creative Commonwealth Initiative has offered our community and the SouthCoast Community Foundation (the Community Foundation), where we work, the opportunity to make that shift intentional, authentic, and – we believe - durable. As we enter the next phase of what we expect to be a decade-long partnership with the Barr Foundation and four other Massachusetts Community Foundations, we are happy to share a few reflections on our progress and lessons to date.

Located in the South Coast of the Commonwealth, the Community Foundation serves 41 cities and towns. The history of the area as a whaling hub turned manufacturing mecca and now fishing capital, has drawn immigrant groups from many nations. Those ethnic groups, including Portuguese, Cabo Verdean, Norwegian, French Canadian, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Honduran, and many others have significantly influenced the richness of culture, food, language, and community we enjoy today.

When we embarked upon the Creative Commonwealth Initiative, we started with outreach and conversations. Our goal was to better understand the creative assets, aspirations, and challenges in our communities.

When we embarked upon the Creative Commonwealth Initiative, we started with outreach and conversations. Our goal was to better understand the creative assets, aspirations, and challenges in our communities. The major finding was that much of what these vibrant communities had to offer was not being elevated nor broadly celebrated. This discovery led to four key questions that guided our pilot years:

  1. What role, as a community foundation, could we provide to elevate our immigrant communities - old and new - through the arts and cultural expression?
  2. How could we elevate the artistic expression of culturally diverse populations to ensure that they are represented, and their voices amplified?
  3. How could we catalyze local funding and investment from different sectors to support these stories that are integral to our communities?
  4. How could we use our Creative Commonwealth Initiative as an avenue to have a deeper and more resonate impact in a meaningful and authentic way?

As we tested new approaches to answering these questions, it has already generated tangible change in important ways.

New work, new artists, and new places

We witnessed the Silver Current installation transform the downtown New Bedford landscape and serve as a vibrant, enchanting community canopy with programming ranging from a New Bedford Ballet performance to weekly meditation gatherings. We have heard the voices of youth artists in Fall River, who were once unaware of their own city’s history, but who are now local experts telling stories through compelling art installations that suggest the future they are building. We have witnessed the creation of a mural in New Bedford’s South end – away from the City’s cultural core – featuring a young black girl boldly facing the highway that unsympathetically displaced and gutted communities of color in the 1970s.

People enjoy public art.

People enjoy the Silver Current installation in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Just two weeks ago in late September, we all witnessed a new wave of artistic vision flooding the streets of Fall River. The inaugural FABRIC Arts Festival was the first of its kind for the city and the region. While Portuguese artistic expression generally takes a traditional approach, often with a warm and comforting look backwards at its heritage, this festival was imbued with the contemporary energy and excitement of new festivals in the Azores – with Azorean/Portuguese artists like Walk and Talk and Tremor. Not confined to a single dance hall, park, or museum, the Festival was spread throughout the city through robust collaboration. Concerts, movie screenings, presentations, and outdoor murals brought people together in every part of Fall River to celebrate the cultural richness of their city.

New Creative Leaders and Philanthropic Partners

Over a year ago, we had a conversation with FABRIC Festival lead organizer and local entrepreneur, Michael Benevides, about his vision of a contemporary Azorean arts festival. Michael is a successful businessman. Yet, since he had no experience in the arts performance world, he was reticent to apply to our Creative Commonwealth Initiative. With our encouragement, however, he submitted a proposal, and his project was awarded a $5,000 planning grant. This grew to $15,000, thanks to BayCoast Bank, a local funder and Community Foundation partner, who was equally excited about the vision for Fall River. In 2019, the festival was awarded a $20,000 Cultural Expression grant through our Creative Commonwealth Initiative. Additionally, the Bank Five Fund, which had no previous history of support for the arts, saw, through our efforts, the importance and relevance of the project and awarded a $25,000 grant. Our role as philanthropic matchmaker, by promoting opportunities and educating donors is critical to this work. When we can lay the groundwork for other donors to join in, the path to change is inevitable and, we hope, compelling.

New Conversations

As part of the FABRIC Festival, John had the opportunity to moderate a conversation with a local artist, international urban planner (and Fall River native), and a founder of a new arts organization. Together, we considered this moment for Fall River at this intersection of economic revitalization and creative place. The conversation drew a significant audience and provided an exciting and illuminating exchange of ideas, challenges, opportunities, and excitement for Fall River. The important question for us now is, how can we continue this conversation, and advance the work? There is so much more to come, and we – as community members - are the ones to drive it forward.

As a Community Foundation it is essential that we build trust and credibility that allows us to be recognized as a dependable partner, change agent, philanthropic matchmaker, and community leader. We look forward to building on this progress and continuing to develop new partners, new artists, and new local philanthropy to join us in this work.

comments powered by Disqus