For many generations, the Vineyard arts community has grown organically. Artists congregated on the Island for the beauty of the environment, or were perhaps drawn by the kinship of like-minded creative types.
But the two-year-old cultural collaborative, Arts MV, has begun an attempt to actively promote this community, with the goal of leveraging an economic boon for the Island.
On Monday, they met for their annual meeting, and called on a national economics expert to talk about using art to bring more dollars to the community.
The speaker, Ann Markusen, is director of the Arts Economy Initiative and the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
She spoke about her nationwide study of placemaking, the process of redesigning public spaces to promote commerce and well-being. In her survey of placemaking projects nationwide, she found many examples of cities and small towns where communities took a space that was previously undervalued and used art to make it into a place where businesses, tourists and residents want to be.
In Philadelphia, she studied a city-sponsored mural project which put prisoners to work painting the city’s graffiti-covered walls and garbage trucks. In Cleveland, she found a historic movie cinema that had been refurbished, transforming the previously neglected neighborhood surrounding it.
In all projects, she said, stakeholders came together to strategically shape the physical and social character of the area through the promotion of cultural activities.
“They are placing arts at the middle and not just using it as an instrument for something else,” she said. Each project also benefitted from the backing of many partners, including a political leader.
Audience members wondered if a similar feat could be applied to the Island’s own historic theatres which have fallen into disrepair. Artist Renee Balter said the Oak Bluffs movie theatres would be a perfect place to start a project like the ones Ms. Markusen studied.
“Perhaps you can give us some ideas to work with,” Ms. Balter said.
Ms. Markusen said communities in North Dakota and Minnesota had been granted funds to restore their dilapidated movie theatres. In Grand Forks, N.D., the Empire Theatre is now used 280 days a year for all manner of community events, including visual arts shows, prom dress shows and theatre and music events.
“They are placing arts at the middle and not just using it as an instrument for something else,” she said.
Artists at the meeting also expressed concern about the lack of affordable housing and studio space for Vineyard artists.
Ms. Markusen said many other communities solved that problem by turning previously unused buildings into studio and performance venues.
“The artists have these needs for work spaces that others don’t have,” Ms. Markusen said.
Arts MV launched Fall for the Arts in 2012, a marketing effort designed to attract visitors to the Island in the shoulder season. Chamber of Commerce director Nancy Gardella said this has helped drive up hotel occupancy in the fall. This year the group will debut a Spring for the Arts program aimed at extending the shoulder season in the other direction.
An inventory of the Island’s cultural assets, conducted in early 2012, found that the arts make up 10 per cent of the overall economy. Only tourism and construction ranked higher.
The committee is currently working towards securing a state cultural district designation for Vineyard Haven. This would highlight creative businesses along a mile of downtown Vineyard Haven, and bring exposure to the town through statewide tourism marketing efforts.
“What is good for one town is good for the Island,” said Christine Flynn, specialist in economic development at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce has developed an Arts Martha’s Vineyard app, which is available in the Google Play and iTunes stores.