Many art galleries and institutes aspire to being pillars of representation and generators of change in their communities, but relatively few do so, at least in any significant way. The Tides Institute and Museum of Art in Eastport, Maine, (www. Tidesinstitute.org) is one of the rare art institutes that has achieved, in a relatively short time, the status of leading institution, repository of local history, innovative presence and social resistor. This is the little art institute that could. The Tides opened its doors in 2002 after several years of behind the scenes work by its director and driving force, Hugh French, whose vision is one which sees art transgressing boundaries at a number of levels. French raised primarily private money to refurbish an historic bank building and to continue to expand the repertoire of Institute activities.
To understand the Tides Institute and its significance a word about geography is necessary. Eastport is situated on Moose Island, one of the islands of Passamaquoddy Bay, which has, until relatively recently, been characterized by a fluidity of movement of people between it and the Canadian Islands of Campobello, Deer and Grand Manan, as well as the resort town of Saint Andrews. The earliest practitioners of this fluidity of movement were various First Nations peoples, evidence of whose presence can still be found on beaches in the form of cutting tools and arrowheads, and who still occupy territory on the Point Pleasant reservation (and with whom the Tides institute collaborates). Early commerce, mostly related to a massive sardine industry, saw an easy flow of water traffic across still in-flux boundaries. The Roosevelt’s summered on Campobello, Willa Cather and the ‘Cottage Girls’ on Grand Manan (some coming by boat from Boston), and the mail boat Rex delivered parcels and people between the islands. The national borders were largely irrelevant and these disparate islands formed a community, sharing commercial, medical and social resources. Fast forward to the beginning of the second millennium and enter the age of securitization and the Tides Institute, at just about the same time. Government issued identification and interrogation about minute details of purpose for entry have replaced the easygoing flow of people that merged these islands into community. As the nation-states collaborated in building walls, the Tides set about to take them down.
What does all of this have to do with art? The Tides demonstrates a determination to carry on the tradition of shared community that is no small feat in the current border conscious context. The permanent collection of art, mostly paintings and works on paper, houses works that span a century and a half, depicting the life of the area, as well as work by artists who have found creative inspiration here. The library is an eclectic mix of art and history books and other resources, which extends to an ever-growing online database. The monthly exhibitions at the Institute incorporate frequent artist talks by American and Canadian artists (such as Janice Wright Cheney about her exhibition “Trespass”), and works that are the result of cross-border collaborative ventures sponsored by the Tides Institute, such as the recent “French Labor: New Graphic Works by Charlie Hewitt”. Canadian artist Jim Boyd, participant in the prestigious Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium, created a sculpture in Maine for a Tides-sponsored installation in Eastport. The Tides organizes an annual art studio tour entitled “Two Countries, One Bay” that this year included 41 artists and events across national boundaries. In September private donations and a Communities for Maine’s Future grant came together to ensure that the next phase of the Tides ambitious vision will come to fruition: the 1887 Holmes building has been purchased to create a new StudioWorks facility combining first floor studio space with second floor visiting artist housing.
The Tides Institute has brought a synergistic energy to the city of Eastport. New art galleries have sprung up during the past decade, and the local artists’ collective, the Eastport Gallery, seems to have renewed energy. The Institute has been influential not just in creating and preserving art, but in generating a buzz about art—not an easy task in a nation in recession and an area that has been economically depressed for years. The Tides models all that a commitment to the arts can accomplish in a community by offering leadership, challenging established boundaries, and providing insight and knowledge about we have been, who we are, and who we might become. In an area known for some of the highest tides in the world, the largest tidal whirlpool in the western hemisphere, tide rips, sudden wind squalls and shifts in wind, the Tides Institute is following tradition—navigating the impossible without fanfare is part of the way of life in this part of the world.
Tides Institute & Museum of Art
P.O. Box 161, Eastport, Maine 04631, U.S.A.