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Vineyard arts groups breaking new ground

by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, Cape Cod Times

 

Two key Martha’s Vineyard cultural organizations have new homes north of their old locations, with one group wrapping up a nearly decadelong effort to reinvent itself and the second just starting its own plans to grow.

After almost a century in Edgartown, and a $32 million restoration and expansion project, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum opened its new, much larger, state-of-the-art facility in mid-March at the top of a Vineyard Haven hill overlooking the harbor. Officials are “still working out a lot of kinks,” according to director of operations and business development Katy Fuller, as they welcome a largely island audience before revealing a new barn area later this month and holding a grand-opening celebration on the last weekend of June.

The new museum “is a game-changer for the island as a whole and for Vineyard Haven,” said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. “The museum staff had done the best they could with the extremely limited space they had in Edgartown, but this baby elevates it to a whole new ballgame.”

“We just keep pinching ourselves and saying ‘Did it actually happen?’” Fuller said, reflecting on the nearly two years since groundbreaking, plus the years of planning before that.

About 7 miles away in West Tisbury is the land that the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival announced as the location for its future year-round base. Festival officials are seeking public input on their expansion after 19 years of holding summer screenings and winter festivals in Chilmark, and outgrowing the leased space there.

The 9.75-acre property now under purchase agreement with the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society will put the festival right between the society’s fairgrounds and the Polly Hill Arboretum — on land where the Martha’s Vineyard Museum once expected to relocate. Officials from the festival, the agricultural society and the arboretum already have started working together on plans for the future.

“It is with the utmost excitement, pride and gratitude that we announce the next chapter of the MVFF’s story,” began an announcement of the West Tisbury agreement sent by email and on the film festival website. “On that land, we plan to build a year-round gathering space for education, film, music, theater, storytelling, workshops, and community discussion.”

Officials noted the planning and building process “will take time,” but they are ready.

Festival officials did not return requests for comment this week on how much time or how much money might be needed to realize their vision, but the announcement described a community space to get people of all ages away from electronic screens and instead gather in person. The “mantra,” according to founder and executive director Thomas Bena: “In our barn, the wood stove will be burning in the winter, and the doors open in the summer.”

The new museum, the film festival plans and other recent changes that include the doubling of exhibit space at the year-round Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs are all part of a continued growth in the Vineyard arts scene — particularly beyond the summer months. The arts drive more than 12 percent of the island economy, according to Gardella.

The cultural growth trend got official state designation when Vineyard Haven Harbor was recognized five years ago as the island’s first Massachusetts Cultural District. (Aquinnah has since joined that list.) MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse just off Vineyard Haven’s Main Street, describes the town’s cultural district as “one of the absolute richest in the commonwealth. Rich in the quantity and quality of creative organizations and historical significance.”

That includes what Melinda F. Loberg, vice chairwoman of the Tisbury Board of Selectmen, described as “several anchor institutions that really aren’t replicated anywhere else on the island.” In 2014, extensive renovation turned Munafo’s playhouse into a year-round facility. In 2012, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Beach Road (not connected to the film festival relocating to West Tisbury) had opened with its year-round focus on art films.

Besides running the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival each fall, the Vineyard Haven center holds other smaller festivals throughout the year — including the Spectrum Festival of LGBTQ-oriented films coming up April 26-29 — and operates the seasonal Capawock Theater on Main Street, a historic venue restored and reopened in 2015.

Other arts and historic organizations have recently added to the cultural development of the island’s only year-round ferry port, along with shopping and dining options (with restaurants able to serve liquor since 2017 in the formerly dry town).

The new Martha’s Vineyard Museum, though, even years before it actually opened, “played a major role in getting the (state cultural) designation” in 2014, according to Amy Ryan, director of the Vineyard Haven Public Library and co-chairwoman of the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District Partnership. “We hope that the museum property will increase Vineyard Haven’s reputation as a (year-round) center for culture” plus increase the town’s cultural collaborations, she said.

Munafo called the museum the “latest cultural jewel” in the district “and the pride of Vineyard Haven, indeed of the whole island.” Loberg described it as a standout and noted that “it’s a feather in the cap of the town to have such a venerable institution here.”

The location works well for the museum, too, Fuller said, in part because ferry passengers can see the imposing hilltop building as they arrive, and it’s easily accessible to visitors, schoolchildren and cruise-ship passengers. To open in Vineyard Haven, though, has taken a long, slow effort that Fuller compared to “the little engine that could.”

The museum started as a historical society in 1922 and grew to offer exhibits and research in converted houses in Edgartown. But, by 2003, it became clear that the museum was bursting at the seams, Fuller said. The museum now owns more than 15,000 items, and there wasn’t proper storage or security for its collection, the space wasn’t ideal for computer technology, and there was little parking and no access for school buses.

“We pretty well knew that if we wanted to continue our momentum as a museum, we couldn’t stay there,” Fuller said of the downtown Edgartown campus, most of which was sold in December to help finance the new space.

Possible relocation to West Tisbury or an Edgartown school were studied, but didn’t work for various reasons. Finally, in 2011, a board member let officials know that the large old Marine Hospital (for sick and wounded sailors) in Vineyard Haven — used from 1952 to 2007 as a children’s camp — was unexpectedly going on the market and, with donors’ help, the 19th-century property was secured.

Planning, design and fundraising have taken years, with some events held on the property’s lawn to get donors used to the new location.

“That was one scary building that time had not been kind to,” Gardella said of the former hospital when museum supporters were first allowed in. “The transformation is spectacular.”

As the economy bounced back and plans grew, government and particularly private money came in toward a $32 million campaign, with $5 million left to raise. That has included a $2 million education endowment for its many programs with island children. Once plans were finished, it took nearly two years from groundbreaking to opening the museum doors.

“As it became more of a reality, people came to us and said, ‘If you’re going to do this, we want to support this,‘” Fuller said. “We have a rich history on the island (and) I’m not sure that people visiting know how much there is. I think most of the time they tend to think of ‘Jaws’ or Ted Kennedy on Chappaquiddick, and those are important things that happened here for sure, but there’s just so much more to it. Whether it’s the African-American community that comes in the summer in Oak Bluffs or the Chilmark deaf community — there’s just so much. Fishing, farming, whaling, … the Wampanoag tribe up in Aquinnah.

“I think there was a conscious decision on the part of the islanders that they wanted their heritage and their culture celebrated, and they certainly want it passed on to the next generation. We definitely raised a lot of money around education and have a lot of exhibits designed around kids and families.”

In addition, she said, “We kind of have become a gathering place, and we strive to be that cultural center for the island. Whether it’s people coming to toss around a football on our front lawn, or coming to eat a sandwich in our cafe or whatever, we kind of just welcome in everyone and want people to feel it’s their museum and they have some ownership of it.

That’s why “it was important for us to open in the winter. … It’s the islanders’ museum.”

A community center also is what the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival is striving to become in the future.

The project, years in the making, is fueled by what the organization felt was a growing community need for a year-round gathering space, its announcement said. Artistic director Brian Ditchfield referred to the former Wintertide coffeehouse in the 1980s and ’90s as “that rare place that teenagers and their parents could all go to. You’d listen to music, perform for each other, or just hang out. I feel like the Island needs a place like that again.”

The festival plans to build a “barn” for after-school programs, workshops and a summer camp. Its current in-school classes, after-school programs and summer workshops teach children filmmaking, personal storytelling and digital literacy, and served more than 1,000 children last year, the announcement noted.

Officials want to collaborate with the agricultural society for joint educational programs to create what Ditchfield described as “the next generation of storytellers and truth seekers.” Under discussion: storytelling events and interactive lessons to pass down traditions “and stories vital to the Island’s history.”

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