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Building a Museum in Small-town Maine

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If you’ve been following the reports at TheAtlantic.com by Deborah and Jim Fallows in their American Futures series, you know that the small city of Eastport, Maine, a town that has faced hard times in the past, is a place with lots of good things going on. Most recently, we’ve learned from Deb about the positive, “yes-we-can” attitudethat has become widespread there, reaching into (and being reinforced by) the language people use. And from Jim, we’ve heard about efforts to build harbor traffic for the deep-water port there and an ambitious, large-scale project to harness the hydro-kinetic power of ocean tides and river currents.

Now let’s look in on another bold venture in Eastport, this one of much smaller scale and different orientation, but no less important in the way it’s helping to revitalize this coastal community. This is the story of how an art museum — The Tides Institute & Museum of Art — got started there in the past decade, and what it’s come to mean in the life of this small community of 1,300 people.

Hugh French, an Eastport native, and his wife, Kristin McKinlay, were living in Portland, Maine, in 2002 when they decided — in the great American spirit of mobility — to move. Where, they weren’t exactly sure.

The former Eastport Savings Bank building before renovation.

But on a visit back to Hugh’s hometown, they saw an old, dilapidated building for sale, the former home of the Eastport Savings Bank, and decided, virtually on the spot, to buy it and create an art museum there.

Laughing at the memory, McKinlay told me: “We went through the building. It was in dire shape, and yet we came out saying to each other, ‘We have to do this.’” Laughing harder, she said, “It was somewhat a matter of putting the cart before the horse.” What she meant was that they hadn’t previously made a conscious decision to move back to Eastport, much less looked for or purchased a home there, but they bought the building anyway, planning to create a museum. Their thinking, I realized as McKinlay explained to me the origin of the Tides Institute, was akin to Ray Kinsella’s inspiration in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

Workers removing bank vault from building.

They saw something in that run-down building: hope — and a future. “We realized there was a need here for the kind of cultural institution that could help revitalize the town,” French said. “We knew that Eastport needed a cultural anchor; that was the genesis of the concept. Of course, we knew it would be hard: the town has a small population, there’s little money here, and there’s no big urban center nearby.” But they went ahead anyway, believing in the project — and in the town. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t feel Eastport was already moving in a positive direction,” McKinlay said.

They started out, McKinlay told me, by “putting up a website first. We did that even before we moved from Portland to Eastport. We wanted to elicit responses from people up here about what was needed. So, having a website made it useful to gather ideas about collections, research resources, and so on. Also, potential funders were able to look at it.”

They chose the name with deliberation: rejecting Eastport or Passamaquoddy in favor of Tides, thinking it to be less limiting geographically, but still suggestive of the area and the community’s aspirations for connection to the world beyond. (“Tides connect everywhere,” French noted.) And they chose Institute because they felt it implied the kind of innovative institution they were hoping to create, with an educational mission and “an open-ended institutional capacity.” French explained, “We didn’t want to needlessly box ourselves in.”

Painting by Arthur Cadieux, in collection of Tides Institute.

Thanks to family heritage, French already had a collection of objects on which to build — paintings, historical photos, oral histories, and the like — much of this, cultural material about the sardine canneries that once dominated the economic life of Eastport. But they knew that building a museum meant they’d have to add substantially to their collection.

Helping to make that happen was the French family name, well known in town. McKinlay explained: “It’s been crucial to our success to have a known quantity in town doing this. Previously, there wasn’t an institution here that people knew and trusted, so people who had artwork, documents, or other valuable things to donate sent their items elsewhere – to other museums around the state or beyond, to the archives of their alma maters, etc. But because people knew Hugh,knew the Frenches, they were willing to give us their items of value. So, things started coming in.”

Main Room in the Tides Institute and Museum of Art

The museum’s collections cover different time periods and places, but are regional in many respects. Included among the kinds of items in the permanent collection are Native-American basketry, hand-painted ceramics, boat models, portraits of ships, and photographs from the sardine canneries. The total museum space is allocated roughly evenly between the permanent collection and special exhibits.

Native-American basket in collection.

Once their extensive reconstruction of the building was completed, French and McKinlay started doing exhibits right away. That helped to build the collection, too. “People would come in to see exhibits and say ‘Oh, I have something you might want to add to your collection.’”

One of their recent exhibits showed the work of Andrea Dezso, a well-known artist who happened to come through Eastport, saw the museum, and approached French and McKinlay, saying, “I’d love to work with you.” So, she put together an exhibit based on her research on the area. Some of her work was her take on the imagination of a child working in the sardine canneries, one piece of which is shown below.

Eastport school children viewing TIMA exhibit of work by Andrea Dezso 

Another exhibit, this past summer, featured the installation of a separate structure on the plaza in front of the museum, containing a large camera obscura. McKinlay said that the exhibit, called Vorti-Scope, was “terrifically engaging to people of all ages.” (This video shows Vorti-Scope when it was installed in Fredericton, New Brunswick.)

When the Tides Institute first opened, it was one of the few places in Eastport open on Sundays. Sometimes the fledgling museum had only one or two people come in over the course of a Sunday – or nobody at all. Now, on Sundays in the summer, it’s not uncommon for as many as 150 people to come through.

Pottery by Tom Smith 

Apart from building their collection and attracting an audience, another constant worry for French and McKinlay has been financing. But they’ve had some encouraging success on that score, too. For example, they applied for funding from ArtPlace, which is a collaboration of national foundations, banks, and the National Endowment for the Arts, aiming to promote public interest in the arts, encourage “creative place-making,” and support efforts to transform communities that are making strategic investments in the arts.

When French and McKinlay applied for an ArtPlace grant a couple years ago, theirs was one of approximately 2,200 initial applications, out of which 200 were invited to make final applications. Only 47 grants ultimately were awarded – one of those (for $250,000) to the Tides Institute. “We’re the only institution in Maine ever to get money from them,” French told me, attributing that success to the attractiveness of the idea behind one of the Tides Institute’s missions, “to build connectedness and engage people in the community, including across the border in Canada.”

New StudioWorks building, under reconstruction.

The ArtPlace grant helped subsidize the restoration of another old (1887), rundown building nearby that French and McKinlay acquired. This second space, now renovated, houses their StudioWorks facility, providing studio space, with print-making equipment, a letterpress, and assorted digital resources. The building also serves as home to an artist-in-residence program that has grown rapidly in popularity, receiving 70 to 80 applications for the four sequential residencies available this past summer. The program is attracting the attention of artists, in part because it provides recipients with a stipend, along with free housing in an attractive space a block away.

Artist Christine Wong Yap, at work in new StudioWorks space.

The artist-in-residency program is dear to McKinlay and French because it helps meet their purpose of engaging the community. They want people to see artists at work in a studio, and they ask the artists to do work that people can participate in. Similarly, they run an educational program that, in addition to bringing school kids into the museum on field trips, also sends artists into the local schools to talk to kids about what artists do and to show some work. “We want kids to know that becoming an artist is one potential path ahead,” said McKinlay.

In the spirit of trying to strengthen the bonds of community, another important venture of the Tides Institute is its New Year’s Eve Celebration, which started about six years ago. French told me, “We commissioned an artist to create an 8-foot sardine that gets lowered from the roof of the museum at midnight, like the crystal ball at Times Square. It’s a very popular event. Hundreds of people come out for it.”

New Year’s Eve celebration, 2012, in square in front of TIMA’s main building in Eastport

Looking back on what they’ve accomplished, French and McKinlay are proud of seeing their two buildings restored and happy to see how their efforts are contributing to the growing vitality of this small city. They’re gratified, too, French said, at how the Tides Institute & Art Museum has “encouraged cooperation and exchange among communities here on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.”

Brochure created by TIMA and community partners. 

Not only would they do it all again, despite the formidable challenges they’ve faced, but they’d offer encouragement to others considering starting new ventures in the arts. As McKinlay put it. “I’d say to them, Youcan do it. You can be creative. Youcan be innovativeYes, it’s true: you have to be a little crazy. And you have to be willing to make some sacrifices and take some risks. But there’s a great opportunity to make a difference, especially in small towns.”

French and McKinlay are the first to say that they didn’t do all this on their own. “This is a tight community. People here work together,” McKinlay told me. “But I think it’s true everywhere that people will try to be helpful when they see something coming along that promises to be beneficial to the whole community. That’s certainly what we’ve found. So, my message to people would be: Take that gamble.”

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This piece originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com


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An Educational Surprise from Down East: Maine Maritime Academy

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Eastport, Maine, which Deb and Jim Fallows have been profiling recently in their American Futures posts – and which Jim is writing an article about for the January issue of the magazine (subscribe here!) – is a tiny town of 1300 people in Washington county, which wraps around Maine’s farthest “down East” stretches.

Washington County calls itself the “Sunrise County” because it’s the easternmost county in the U.S, where the sun first rises on the 48 contiguous states. But it doesn’t boast about being the poorest county in Maine, which it is. Many of the small seaside communities dotting the county’s eastern border survive on small-scale fishing operations, while much of the rest of the county’s economy depends on wild blueberries. This is hardscrabble-life territory. That’s why towns like Eastport are working so strenuously to innovate and find paths to a more prosperous future.

It’s also why a college education leading to a solid career is perhaps even more prized here than in much of the rest of the U.S – why families celebrate when their kids get admitted to their chosen college.

There’s nothing unusual about celebrating your kid’s admission to a preferred college with a party.  But for many families in Maine, that party has a name – a “lottery party,” as in “our kid just won the lottery.” I’m told this is what lots of folks in Maine call such a celebration that follows admission to the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), graduation from which, they believe, virtually guarantees lifetime earnings equal to a big lottery win.

Deb and Jim Fallows told me they heard people in Eastport sing the praises of MMA, which is several hours southwest of Eastport, in Castine.  Not knowing anything about MMA, I decided to look into it. One of the people in Eastport who championed the MMA as attention-worthy is Captain Bob Peacock (USNR-Ret.), the Eastport harbor pilot Deb mentions here. Peacock is a 1971 graduate of MMA and, it turns out, chairman of its board of trustees. When he heard I was going to Castine to check out MMA, he said he’d meet me there, arrange for me to meet with the president, Bill Brennan, as well as faculty and students – and also give me a personal tour.

What a revelation.

Not least, the place is beautiful. Castine (population 1,366) is one of the oldest towns in Maine. White clapboard houses surround an appealing campus that sits on a hill near Penobscot Bay, overlooking Castine Harbor. (Town and campus in photo above.) Much of the town doesn’t look too different from how it must have looked in 1779, when Paul Revere and other Americans on the Penobscot Expedition were routed by the British here.

But it’s not the charm of the place that is the principal attraction to students who apply here; the career preparation is. And the waterside, small-town tranquility that envelops MMA belies the institution’s high-tech underpinnings, which I’ll touch on below.

This is a college whose student body is largely self-selected. As one professor told me, “dabblers don’t come here.” Highly directed students who know what they want to do are the kind of people who matriculate at MMA. Application numbers are atall-time highs for admission to this public four-year college. This year’s tuition ranges from $9,080 for in-state students to $19,900 for out-of-state students, with students from some other New England states paying $13,620. Financial aidis, of course, available. And as an indicator of the success MMA’s students typically enjoy, Bill Brennan told me, “The default rate on the loans we issue is around 1.5 percent — as opposed to 12 or 13 percent at most institutions.”  Undergraduate enrollment has climbed to nearly 1,000.  According to President Brennan, the place is “bursting at the seams” with students eager for the education obtainable here. “Enrollment is slipping in lots of colleges around the country, but we’re beyond capacity here.”

They come to study to be navigation officers (ultimately, captains and pilots) of huge ocean-going vessels as well as smaller ships. (Did you see Captain Phillips? If so, then you’ve seen the kinds of jobs some of these students train for.) Some come to major in engineering – learning to design, install and operate power-generation, hydraulic, electrical, and other systems on vessels and in shore-based utilities. Still others come to the business school to study global logistics and business operations in international trade.

Increasing numbers of MMA students come to study marine science and marine biology, many doing a dual-degree option in small-vessel operations, which prepares them to work in various fields of ocean science where they may also need the capability to operate small research craft (“small” here means vessels not over 200 gross tons).  That particular combination is very popular and, one professor told me, “golden” in its career prospects.

And that’s the point. Whatever their course of study, young people enroll here because they know their education will prepare them for a career, typically a quite lucrative one. MMA understandably boasts that each year it places more than 90 percent of its graduating class in professional employment or graduate studies within 90 days of graduation, many of those with starting salaries over $100,000. At a recent career fair on campus, 80 companies showed up to recruit MMA students, many of whom already have firm job offers well before they’re seniors.

When you walk around the MMA campus, you see many students in the khaki or blue uniforms of midshipmen. Approximately 60 percent of MMA students are in the “regiment of midshipmen,” mostly those seeking an unlimited license in the U.S. Merchant Marine. But regimental training – with its uniforms, leadership training, discipline, and additional duties (though no military obligation after graduation) – is open to all students.  The regimented and “traditional” students attend the same classes, participate in the same clubs, Division-III athletic teams, and other activities.

What struck me at MMA was how much hands-on experience these students get. (Video here.) Everybody gets cooperative-learning experience, appropriate to their educational and career goals, either aboard vessels or with companies involved in industrial manufacturing, logistics, engineering, oceanographic research, or marine biology.

And the on-campus training is enriched by impressive high-tech facilities, as I mentioned above.  For example, I was awed by the state-of-the-art, computerizednavigation simulator (seen in photo below), used to train deck officers.  It’s in the campus Center for Advanced Technology, in a large room set up like a ship’s bridge. A semicircle of 55-inch flat-screen monitors provides students with real-life simulations of port approaches and harbors anywhere in the world. The day I was there, the harbor on the simulator’s screens was New York. It was so authentic that I might as well have been looking from the Staten Island Ferry – and so realistic that people have gotten seasick in the room.

The instructor can call up simulations of full darkness, heavy fog, and various untoward incidents (approaching vessel, collision, man overboard, etc.) to challenge student navigators in all sorts of situations.  This simulator also includes controls for Dynamic Positioning (DP) systems, a technology that enables precise maneuverability for offshore oil rigs, tugs, and large passenger ships, thus allowing  students to get training necessary to handle the newest, most advanced marine vessels out there.

Students in certain programs are required to take two training cruises of at least 60 days – one each at the end of their first and third years. These cruises, aboard theState of Maine (large ship pictured below) orient students to a ship’s deck and engineering areas, and provide specific hands-on experience in the students’ areas of major.  And in the summer after the sophomore year, students in some majors are assigned to merchant vessels for several months of additional shipboard experience. Others, like students studying business and logistics, must get a co-operative work experience with a company, lasting a minimum of twelve 40-hour work weeks, at the end of the third year.

So, a large part of the extraordinary success MMA graduates have in getting good jobs right after graduation has to do with the experiential training they get at the academy. As Bob Peacock put it, “these students learn how to do things. We teachhow to make it happen.”

The other part of MMA graduates’ success comes from the fact that they’ve been training for careers where there’s extraordinary demand for employees. The international cargo shipping industry is growing so fast that it’s hard for American flagships to find qualified navigators and engineers. International businesses need people skilled in the kind of sophisticated logistics contemporary world trade demands. And as people around the world look to the oceans as a growing source of food and natural resources, those trained in marine biology and marine science are in high demand.

Here’s what’s important and interesting about all this. The kind of education provided at MMA and America’s six other maritime academies is not familiar to most Americans. Most of us, I would wager, have only the slightest idea what goes on at these institutions. That’s too bad, because what’s going on is some of the most compelling education to be found anywhere.

And in an era when angst about whether the benefits of a college education are outweighed by the staggering costs – and when many critics of American higher education bemoan the banality and uselessness of what happens on college campuses – the Maine Maritime Academy provides an arresting antidote to those negative narratives and to the notion that we’re headed downhill.  This is the kind of place that makes America work. And succeed.

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This post originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

 


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An Exceptional New Blog

Original A friend of mine — someone I admire a lot — recently started a new blog. This isn't like most blogs.  Unlike my blog, for example, his is not cheap, shallow, intemperate, snarky, and filled with foul language.  Rather, his blog is erudite, literary, and intellectually interesting.  Moreover, it has a real, tangible connection to the world around us.

The blog I wish to refer you to is this: Walking the Post Road.  I'm loathe to categorize it, but I cannot resist.  It is part travelogue (walkalogue?), part American history, part slice-of-life, part thoughtful reflection on nature and development.  But in characterizing it this way, I sell it short.  It is a piece of many parts, a symphony of observation, research, and intriguing encounters.

The author* of this blog is walking (!!) the ancient Indian trail that "roughly follows the route of U.S. 1 . . . the most ancient and documented route from Boston to New York."  Along the way, he will provide us with carefully researched historical information, with thoughtful consideration of the natural and developed world he encounters, and with mini-portraits of the people whose paths he crosses.  A modern-day Thoreau, he also is certain to enlighten us with his observations about solitude and the pleasures and pains of perambulation.

His is a most unusual undertaking.  I intend to be with him, every step of his way, learning from his fieldwork and his humanity.  I urge you to be there, too.  Walking the Post Road.  See it now.  Subscribe to the RSS feed. Become part of this adventure.  We'll all learn a lot.

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* Despite his aptitude for historical and geographical scholarship, his appreciation of the tension between nature and development, and his general bonhomie, the author intends for now to remain anonymousWhy?  I dunno.  But his identity is safe with me.