Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
Buy Tickets
24 Church Street, Box 2452, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 | 508-696-6300

Down But Not Out, Vineyard Arts Community Bands Together

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

Facing empty stages, canceled programming and the shift from live events to online activities, arts organizations on Martha’s Vineyard know they share one certainty as the Covid-19 pandemic continues: heavy financial losses, with totals still untold.

An April survey of 700 arts and culture nonprofits across the state, conducted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, found losses already nearing $265 million.

“The numbers are sobering,” said Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, during a videoconference with other Island arts leaders Friday morning.

“Most cultural nonprofits in Massachusetts will take an average of two to five years to recover in terms of their programming and finance,” added Ms. Smith, reporting on a virtual meeting she attended at which the state council presented its findings.

Featherstone and other arts groups on the Vineyard are banding together to take on the present and future challenges of viability, meeting online weekly to compare notes, share resources and plan campaigns to support the arts on Island.

The Friday morning virtual gathering is an outgrowth of Arts Martha’s Vineyard, a near decade-old advocacy group for the Island’s cultural nonprofits, said Ms. Smith, who acts as chair. Since the pandemic took hold, the coalition—now dubbed the Martha’s Vineyard Arts Community Conversation—has expanded to include individual artists and teachers as well as established organizations.

The weekly videoconference is a Who’s Who of Island arts, its members ranging from key presenters and educators including the Yard, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, to church organist and Island Community Chorus music director Peter Boak, string player and music teacher Andy Herr of the Pickpocket Bluegrass Band, performance artist and Built on Stilts director Abby Bender and others who are active on the Vineyard scene.

“To have this humanity behind the organizations that I admire so much has really been wonderful for me… as someone who doesn’t have a board,” Ms. Bender said Friday. “It has definitely helped me make some tough decisions.”

Business and policy leaders who support the arts, such as Nancy Gardella of the Chamber of Commerce and Christine Flynn of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Dukes County Commission and Oak Bluffs Association, also take part in the weekly conversation.

“We started convening in April, just as a way to connect and see how everybody was doing during this time of Covid, and now through Black Lives Matter and social justice,” Ms. Smith said. “It’s become a very safe place… to talk about our times and what’s happening on our Island and in our world.”

The group also has been taking action, she added, organizing a fund drive for local nonprofits in May followed by a campaign advocating for arts education to continue despite potential cutbacks due to the pandemic.

“We wanted to make sure our voices were on record with the school committees, the superintendent and the principals to share how important arts instruction is,” Ms. Smith said. “That was a second campaign that we are proud of.”

The group now is discussing a third campaign, Create the Vote, a non-partisan effort founded by the Boston-based group Mass Creative that aims to increase public support for the arts.

Neither the commonwealth nor the Island can afford to lose the economic benefits that come from cultural activities, Ms. Smith said.

“We have to continue to make our value known and understood on Martha’s Vineyard,” she said.

“We make Martha’s Vineyard a wonderful place to visit. We are a huge contributor to the economy… It is really all for our community,” she said.

Last Friday’s conversation provided a hint of how far the Island’s arts community will have to go to regain its momentum. Musician Roberta Kirn, whose community sings are an Island tradition, said she’s not even thinking about her annual December concert.

“Singing, in particular, you spew extra germs everywhere, even at a distance,” Ms. Kirn said. “My heart aches for in-person singing.”

At Featherstone, where summer is normally a bustling time for art classes in a panorama of disciplines from sketching and watercolors to ceramics and jewelry-making, staffer Posie Haeger said small, socially-distanced painting classes are just resuming.

But while most of the arts center was shut down, Ms. Haeger said, its Noepe Center for Literary Arts was able to continue scheduled writing workshops online.

“Virtual doesn’t always work well for certain art forms, but it has worked very well for Noepe,” she said.

The literary center also recently collaborated with Pathways Arts on a virtual book launch for author Jennifer Smith Turner.

“We can promote things,” said Scott Crawford of Pathways, which is based in Chilmark during the off-season and has no summer home. Mr. Crawford had no guess as to what Pathways will do when its traditional start rolls around in November, he said.

Playhouse executive director MJ Bruder Munafo said it will be a year or more before indoor performances resume at the playhouse.

“We’re going to be overly cautious,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo, adding that the playhouse increasingly is exploring virtual programming.

“One of our main missions at the playhouse is to develop new work, and there’s no reason we can’t do that using these platforms,” she said.

Yard artistic director David White praised Ms. Smith for spearheading the weekly arts conversation.

“It has created a far greater intimacy among us, just that we are talking on a regular basis. That isn’t something that happens easily on the Vineyard,” Mr. White said. “I hope that it is something that will continue to provide strength to all of us as we continue to move through these next years.”

Connect with us