Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Spotlight: Community Conversations on Martha’s Vineyard

by Sophia Balsamo, Mass Creative

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Commonwealth back in March, uncertainties abounded: how long would the lockdown last? How could we keep safe? That the nature of the virus required us to isolate and be apart from our communities only heightened our anxieties. In the arts & cultural sector, where community connection is so often at the very core of our work, the loss felt particularly devastating. In that moment, the only solution seemed to be to find a way to come together. 

Ann Smith, the executive director of Martha’s Vineyard’s Featherstone Center for the Arts, who chaired Arts Martha’s Vineyard (ArtsMV) for a decade, knew to start with a conversation.

ArtsMV is a collective that brings together arts leaders on the island alongside the community’s Chamber of Commerce, regional planning groups, and other important partners. While the coalition still worked to plan events for the island’s “shoulder seasons”, the crisis brought on by the pandemic seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring more of Martha’s Vineyard onboard. Back in April, the coalition opened a Friday Zoom conference to anyone in the community who had a connection to arts & culture. The attendees represent the diversity of impact that arts and culture have to Martha’s Vineyard. In addition to arts and cultural organizations and individual artists, educators, business leaders and policy advocates are also in the mix. 

In the first weeks, ArtsMV focused heavily on the pandemic, as the many consequent closures threatened the economic stability of the sector and fears about the physical health of the community swirled. The call was a stable comfort, happening at the same time every week, with a chance to connect with and support one another. Slowly, the conversations shifted towards action, and in May, the coalition united for their first campaign, developing a video to promote the Day of Giving, a fundraising event for the nonprofit arts & cultural organizations that call Martha’s Vineyard home. 

As the months have gone on, the conversations have continued to shift. Throughout June, the call became a space to discuss racial injustice and cultural equity, prompted by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black Americans at the hands of the police.

As it became clear that the school budget was tightening and arts education was at risk, the coalition banded together for their second action, a letter to the Superintendent, Board of Education, and school principals that laid out their objectives for a well-rounded arts curriculum and offering their resources to support it. Now, as election season kicks into high gear, the coalition is joining the #CreateTheVote campaign to encourage civic engagement, especially in regards to the Census.

Smith describes the weekly call as a safe space to work together and find creative solutions. “We serve as cheerleaders and champions for those brave enough to try new things,” she says, adding that the diverse nature of the coalition allows each individual and organization to take common actions and put their unique spin on it.

As the tenth anniversary of the earlier iteration of the coalition nears, both Smith and Posie Haeger, also of Featherstone Center for the Arts, envision a similar future for this group. “It’s a joy to have that camaraderie,” says Haeger, and the pair see the enthusiasm of the coalition’s members as a sign of a long-term commitment to collective action on the island. 

The pandemic is far from over, and its economic toll on the creative sector is significant. But amongst the fear and uncertainty, community still thrives, taking its place as one of the most important things in a crisis. On Martha’s Vineyard, those involved in arts and culture have come together in full force, and their collective dedication serves as a beautiful example of how a community can support and empower its members. We look forward to seeing the continued work of ArtsMV as they lead their sector towards a more unified and collaborative future.

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