Blue State Views


Leave a comment

Building a Museum in Small-town Maine

a48f88ca0

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.”

________________________

This piece originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com


Leave a comment

“Silver Girl,” by Elin Hilderbrand; “Maine” by J. Courtney Sullivan

ImagesElin Hilderbrand's new novel Silver Girl, just released last week, is a successful addition to her list of entertaining books set on Nantucket and involving women who are dealing with crises of various sorts — often husbands who are troubling or in trouble — and tensions in their friendships with other women.  This time, her main character is based on a sympathetic imagining of the problems faced by Ruth Madoff, the wife of Bernie Madoff, history's biggest swindler and ponzi-scheme architect.  Hilderbrand's character, Meredith Delinn, escapes New York's omnipresent paparazzi, fleeing to Nantucket with her best friend from childhood, Connie Flute.  There, Delinn awaits news of whether prosecutors will charge her with aiding her jailed husband in his financial crimes, and the two women face a variety of relationship dilemmas involving their children and available men. 

The story isn't as silly as it sounds.  Sure, it's a beach read, but far better than the average for that genre.  Hilderbrand knows how to maintain various strands of tension in a novel of this sort.  Her characters are believable and interesting. Like her other books, this is a great beach read — or, as in my case, a good book for a cold, rainy June day.  ★★★★☆

 

 

Images-1I had a less fortunate encounter this week with Maine, the new novel by J. Courtney Sullivan.  I had read Sullivan's first novel, Commencement, a few years ago and found it mildly entertaining.  So, I got suckered in by the big advertising push being conducted by Knopf, publisher of Sullivan's new novel about several generations  from one family who congregate every year at their beach house in Maine.  I only got a third of the way through this book before giving up on it. Nothing happens; I mean nothing!  And the characters are incredibly uninteresting. 

I went back and looked again at a review of Maine that I saw in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago.  Here's an interesting portion of it:

Sullivan hits her stride once she gets all her characters to Maine [which, incidentally, wasn't even close to happening when I stopped reading a third of the way through]. There, she can put them around a dinner table or take them out to a field and let the fireworks erupt. Unfortunately, for much of the book, Alice is the only one actually in Maine. The other family members are still at home, packing and fretting. Sullivan inundates us with their memories and hurts, straining to set the stage. One yearns as her characters do to escape their tangled ruminations and get to the beach.

Once they do arrive, we’re not disappointed. The narrators come fully to life, and the dynamics between them are rich and exhilarating. . . . 

Many novels begin with a full head of steam, only to peter out halfway through. So often I’ve gushed to friends about a book, then had to call them later to retract my recommendation. “Maine,” conversely, starts slowly, but once it gets going, it does not falter. . . . 

Maybe.  But there are too many good books out there to sit around waiting for one to work its magic.  A novelist has to grab you at the start and impel you to keep reading.  Spending more than the first third of a 400-page book on characters' backstory is ridiculous. No author can afford to do that. I put down Maine after 120 deadly pages; I then picked up Silver Girl and was immediately drawn in.  After finishing Silver Girl, I went back and gave Sullivan's book one more try.  But another 30 pages still left me cold.

Save your money.  If you want a good beach read, go with Hilderbrand, not Sullivan.  ★☆☆☆☆