Since 1995, seven different businesses have come and gone in the first-floor space of 76 Main street in Vineyard Haven. Above them though was a constant: the Shaw Cramer Gallery, a large, yet cozy space spotlighting artists local and far flung in mediums that include watercolor, acrylic, collage, clay, bronze and silk.
But after 20 years in business, the constant is changing. This season will be owner Nancy Shaw Cramer’s last.
The decision to leave her business wasn’t an easy one, Ms. Shaw Cramer said in an interview Tuesday. She thought about stepping down for three years before making the final call.
“Once you let go — I’m not 20, or 30, or 40 — so to let go probably won’t happen again,” she said. She is 69. It’s not retirement, exactly, but rather a refocusing.
Years ago, Ms. Shaw Cramer made a pledge to herself: “I promised myself that I wouldn’t wait too long.” If the option presented itself, she would take the opportunity to step back. She didn’t want to work so long that she didn’t have time “to see what else is out there, what else is interesting.”
That includes more time her home studio. Before moving to the Vineyard, Ms. Shaw Cramer was a tapestry weaver, displaying work in national shows and making friendships that would eventually help her as she began her Island career.
With the exception of some part-time help in the summer, the gallery has been a one-woman show since the beginning. Ms. Shaw Cramer does everything from choosing pieces to designing advertising graphics and doing home repairs (she can, in a pinch, even handle the occasional wiring task). Her degree in interior design came in handy more than once: “Color and space planning were my focus,” she said.
Reaching the 20-year mark brought a justifiable sense of pride. Ms. Shaw Cramer described herself as a good planner, developing and kickstarting projects with ease, although maintaining high-quality projects over a long period of time comes with challenges. But not anymore, thanks to the gallery.
“I have stuck it out,” she said. “It was really great, to me it’s a feeling of a great sense of accomplishment.”
Her original goal was to showcase contemporary fine crafts, a niche no one was filling at the time. But over time, friends told her about painters whose art she might want to check out, and the gallery evolved.
The works in the gallery “really energize each other,” she said.
In a 2003 Gazette interview, Ms. Shaw Cramer noted that she presents “a lot of what I call specific sells — things for just that one person who’s going to love it, which is what contemporary is all about. You’ve got to have things that aren’t conventional, aren’t expected. So what I’m trying to do is still have those things, but with an elegant, gracious feel.”
The gallery has often been described as eclectic, but the adjective threw her a bit when she first heard it.
“What I am seeing is not the individual objects,” Ms. Shaw Cramer said. “I’m seeing the fact that everyone has achieved high technical skills, they’re using excellent materials, excellent compositions — regardless of what they’re working in.”
A 2009 Gazette retrospective on the Shaw Cramer 15th anniversary noted: “Though her initial impulse was to avoid fine arts, her appreciation for all beautiful art eventually triumphed.”
Today she agrees. “Right now to me everything is artwork,” she said, pointing to a small detailed sculpture of an elephant, made by longtime gallery artist Heather Sommers. It was made of clay, considered a craft material. But for Ms. Shaw Cramer, the elephant piece transcended labels.
She walked through the three rooms upstairs, one large, two small, telling the stories behind each piece. A subtly stunning quilt made by Denise Labadie hung on one wall. With its depth of field and textures, it looked more like a painting without a frame. Only up close was the stitching and the fabric evident.
“She walked in my door, a cold call,” Ms. Shaw Cramer said.
When Ms. Shaw Cramer first started out, she was the one doing the cold calling. A newcomer to the Island in 1994, she was starting a new chapter of her life (“Everyone on the Island does that,” she said) by pursuing a long-held dream of opening a gallery. There were no spaces showcasing fine crafts , so she decided to fill the gap. She worked out a draft plan before enrolling in a SCORE small business class at the high school. She got an enormous confidence boost when it turned out that the topics covered things she had already decided on.
“So I knew I’d be on a good path,” she said. She asked her weaver friends for names of artists who might be interested in showing work, and attended wholesale shows searching for pieces. On the hunt for local artists, Ms. Shaw Cramer attended the annual Family Planning Art Show. Though she was still an unknown here, her credentials helped secure artist confidence. She visited Vineyard tapestry artist Julia Mitchell’s studio, learning that the two wove on the same loom. Twenty years later, Ms. Mitchell’s work is still on display at Shaw Cramer.
“It’s a matter of conversation and trust and faith,” Ms. Shaw Cramer said. “They’re trusting me with their artwork.”
“We’ve [all] worked well as a team,” she said. “It’s been an absolute thrill and honor and privilege.”
And if all goes according to plan the decision to step down won’t mean the end of art upstairs.
“My concern was for the artists — where will they be able to place their work?” Ms. Shaw Cramer said. “Then I came to the idea of evolving it into a collaborative gallery.” She developed a business plan to transfer the sole management of the gallery into a cohesive team effort, sharing responsibilities. She herself may be one of the artists involved, with her tapestries and pillows and wearable art, but maybe not until further down the road.
“I thought to myself, I also need a year to really breathe and let the door stay open so I can see what shows up,” she said. “I am not a person who will ever be at a loss for something to do.”
Ms. Shaw Cramer met with artists last Monday about the decision.
“It was very difficult, because it was sad, but I tried to segue right into the positive side,” she said. The artists and Ms. Shaw Cramer will continue to meet to move toward the next steps. Some artists have decided to move to their own studios, which Ms. Shaw Cramer applauded. “I think it’s excellent for them,” she said.
She’s excited by the prospect of transition, and what the new collaboration might yield.
“I will implement through the end of the year, then once we hit January, I [would be] just one vote,” she said. “I’ll train people to sell . . . anything they want me to help with I will certainly do that.”
“When people walk up the steps . . . they’re going to walk in and we’ve got to amaze them,” Ms. Shaw Cramer said.