A Modest Proposal: A Call to Establish an Arts Bank

People are joined to the land by work. Land, work, people, and community are all comprehended in the idea of culture. These connections cannot be understood or described by information — so many resources to be transformed by so many workers into so many products for so many consumers — because they are not quantitative. We can understand them only after we acknowledge that they should be harmonious — that a culture must be either shapely and saving or shapeless and destructive. — Wendell Berry, farmer, essayist, poet It’s as [Marshall] McLuhan says: a tribal situation. We need one another’s help doing (food-gathering, art) what is to be done. — John Cage, mycologist, composer, essayist

This is a call for a long overdue policy initiative — let’s call it the Arts Bank — to preserve the ecology of public contribution and livelihood for the artists of Martha’s Vineyard, now and in the future. For the moment, imagine your local artist as Farm Institute produce or a Katama oyster. Then hold that thought.

I arrived on the Vineyard in early 2011, tasked with guiding the future creative direction of The Yard, the historic non-profit artist residency, and education and performance center created in Chilmark in 1972 by choreographer Patricia Nanon. Outside of a few earlier visits, this was my first introduction to the Island community of, among others, farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, and of course, artists. Lynn Ditchfield, the gently fierce matriarch of the indispensable ACE MV community education series, somehow corralled me into offering a class in that spring’s One Day University. The theme, she said, was Art and Sustainability. Uh oh.

Neither fisherman nor farmer (albeit a middling recycler), I was nonetheless intrigued by how working artists and a theatrical laboratory center such as The Yard could live and work among their Island neighbors. With Lynn’s assignment in mind, I was even more interested in the question of how we might express our creative mission and its sustainability in non-arts terms that would establish kinship with Chris Fischer at Beetlebung Farm across Middle Road, or Dennis Jason, Sr., the harbormaster down the hill in Menemsha. Deep into a late-night download of Breaking Bad, it came to me:

Seed. Grow. Reap. Repeat: The Nature of the Artist.

What connects us? That word: Repeat. The essence of sustainability is the ability to do something, and then to do it all over again. Seeding and harvesting crops in a field, or nurturing generations of sea creatures on an ocean bed — even letting field or bed lie fallow for a period of time in order to renew — are practices that ensure replicability, the assurance of future crops, and catches that will power an agricultural, ocean-born, Island-grown economy and citizenship. Conservation, if it means anything, is the human guarantee of sustainability, of replicability, and the toolkit to ensure that guarantee over time and generations.

Artists as Island-grown produce? True enough. Artists and their cultivation have been an economic fundamental of Island life as long as there has been — well, Island life. When Captain Mayhew sat down with the Wampanoag centuries ago, art-making was already a thriving industry as important as fishing, farming, and the love (and preservation) of the land in the earliest intimations of environmentalism.

The sustainability of the creative process, of the artist’s daily work in studio or plein air, theater or classroom, is the capacity to create, to recharge, and then to create again. It is as critical to the life of the Island as is the food supply or the maintenance of the landscape and coastal waters. Centuries of artists, across a diverse native and immigrant population, document the Vineyard’s history, tell its tales, sing its songs, and dance its nights away, whether at the Sea View Hotel of the past or The Yard of the present.

So what about the conservation of Martha’s artists? What about a human guarantee of a future for the intrinsic role and commerce of each year’s contemporary creators? Farmers and fishing families are threatened by stratospheric land values and property taxes, little availability of affordable housing, warming sea levels and fishing stock depletion, and next-gen outflow from the family-run business. Similarly, artists are often locked into limited incomes, with little assured affordable housing and workspace, a seasonal local marketplace at best, and limited opportunity for outside occupation. The majority are faced with bad and worse choices — to accept year after year of often untenable and transient live/work situations, with little economic security, or to make contingent plans to leave for a more viable, if less interesting, shore.

The Vineyard needs an Arts Bank. Such an agency would tackle the legacy of and future obligations to Island-grown artists and their families. The Arts Bank could be modeled on, and even administered within, the existing Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank in close consultation with the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and other groups dedicated to the development of affordable housing. Indeed, current thinking about livable design puts artist housing and workspace (and the services they offer) at the heart of new, mixed-use, intergenerational affordable public housing. On limited, small farm–sized acreage, compact housing and workspace would create interactive micro-communities, including lively assisted living for a rapidly graying demographic, rather than the usual bedroom warehousing in isolated pockets. Existing buildings could be rehabilitated and incorporated into any comprehensive design. A national, non-profit arts developer such as Minneapolis’ remarkable Artspace could design a cost-control management mechanism to keep people in such housing for their lifetime.

Donations of properties by interested landowners would still pass through the normal vetting for possible affordable housing use, as well as the protection of open land and farmland, wetlands and aquifer, and wildlife habitat — somehow the latter seems un-ironically appropriate in a discussion of artists. But it would also give them the choice of protecting both artists and land, or artists and dairy cows, or artists and open space, not to mention future multi-generation livability in a culturally vital community.

Let’s not forget: Artists have been stewards of the changeable land and its sustaining, turbulent waters — Whiting, Shaw, Ellis, Weldon, Williams, and many others known and less so. Martial artist and ballroom dancer Ted Box publicly handcrafts a scow, The Seeker, and fully expects poets and dancers to christen it on the sea. MJ Bruder Munafo gifts terrific theater artists to the Island every summer, even as she struggles to house them in a place with no housing. Musicians may join painters and Fan Ogilvie’s poets at Featherstone, Ann Smith’s sanctuary of “seasonable madness” (Hart Crane),  in harmony with the neighboring land in conservation. Up-Island’s winter lodestone, the Pathways Projects Institute, directed by art-to-table patron Marianne Goldberg, shelters art and media crossbreeding with Richard Skidmore, Peter Simon, and many others. The Wampanoag hold celebrations at the Aquinnah Circle, and Abby Bender raises O.B.’s Union Chapel roof every summer at Built on Stilts with a United Nations’ worth of community dancers. And poet-landscaper Justen Ahren has created the literary retreat the Noepe Center for Literary Arts as Edgartown’s equivalent of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. This is what our artists do, tilling the soil, setting sail, seeding, growing, reaping, repeating. Their nature. And ours.

As Berry states, people are joined to the land by work. Which work best preserves, enhances, renews that land, for the future is in the eye of the beholder, the citizen, the landowner, the donor. But the four fundamentals of this Island’s history, its being and well-being, are neither subjective nor in doubt — farming, fishing, conservation, and art-making. Like an accordion, there has to be air in all of those livelihood pockets in order to make music. And so, this modest proposal: The Arts Bank is a civic instrument that will make sure that the collective music of Island life will continue to be made in the widest and most intimate senses, especially for those who come after.

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