When art builds a bridge

“Art is part of life. It’s no different with coastal communities than with any other community,” said Hugh French, director of the Tides Institute and Museum of Art in Eastport. French, an Eastport native, founded the Tides Institute in 2002 with his wife, Kristin McKinlay. The team began by restoring a historic downtown building, once the Eastport Savings Bank, to serve as the administrative offices and home to the museum’s collections and exhibition space.

The Tides Institute in downtown Eastport. Photo courtesy of H. French.

This effort was not about bringing things to Eastport, but rather highlighting what was already here. “We have built from scratch very extensive cultural collections that reflect this region and the community has really appreciated this,” said French. “We have received significant gifts to our collections that we did not anticipate when we began, from paintings to photographs, from furniture to Passamaquoddy basketry,” he continued.
Along the coast of Maine, many communities are searching for innovative ways to revitalize downtown and waterfront properties that have historical and community value. The Tides Institute and Museum of Art is one example of such innovation, bringing outside perspectives in through visiting artists, while also highlighting the memorable aspects of the community itself.
The StudioWorks Artist-in-Residence Program is a way that the Tides Institute integrates artists into the local community. Artists apply to the program from around the country and the world to travel to Eastport to live and work for a month. While in residence, the artists practice their craft and also have a unique opportunity to focus on developing a strong connection with the community where they are staying. “Our artists-in-residence will often draw upon the coastal environment as part of their work. Sometimes they’ll use kelp or seaweed as part of their art making. Sometimes they’ll go out on fishing boats. We had a wonderful exhibition this past summer by two of our artist alumni that involved a series of portraits of area residents, including fishermen going about their work at sea.” said French.

A giant lit sardine and a maple leaf are dropped from the Tides Institute on New Year’s Eve to celebrate U.S. and Canadian ties. Photo courtesy of WABI.

Located in such proximity to the ocean itself, it is natural that the Institute and the work contained within it have strong links to maritime history and fishing industries. “We love the fact that our main building is located in the heart of Eastport’s working waterfront, that we have fish trucks going by our building all the time and that we can see fishing boats going to and from port all the time,” French said. While some would consider fishing and art to be very separate things, the reality is that artists often reflect the things that surround them in their everyday life. “Much of our collections reflect the fisheries heritage of this region, whether through paintings, prints, or photographs,” French said. “We have very extensive collections of photographs documenting the herring and sardine industries of this region. We have ship models and fishing boat models in our collections as well as fishery implements.” This work not only has value as art, but it also serves to document previous practices in fishing and other maritime industries.
The Tides Institute and Museum of Art is open to the public year-round, with set hours during the spring, summer, and fall. In the winter, visits are scheduled by appointment. Exhibitions are on display from the late spring through the early fall. French emphasized that those working with the Tides Institute don’t stop at working within the walls of the institute but also go out into the community itself. “Our artists routinely work with the public schools and their students. In fact, we’ve established a special extended term for an art educator in residence to work specifically with the schools and the community,” said French.
One thing is for sure, you don’t want to miss the New Year’s Eve festival. “Fifteen years ago, we established a New Year’s Eve festival that includes the dropping of an artist-created sardine from the top of our main downtown building at midnight as well as the dropping of an artist-created maple leaf an hour before midnight Atlantic time,” said French. The maple leaf refers to Eastport’s adjacent neighbors to the north, Canada. The festival is yet another example of how the Tides Institute strives to bring value into the community. French explained, “There was nothing going on in downtown Eastport on New Year’s Eve before we established the festival. Now we have a dozen places open in the downtown on New Year’s Eve and four to five hundred people standing outside in front of our main building watching the sardine and maple leaf drops.” These types of activities provide an avenue for people to come together and build a stronger connection with their community.
French still considers the Tides Institute to be developing. “The Tides Institute is a long-term project. When we began we thought it would take us 25 years to get to first base. We’re 17 years in now and haven’t changed our opinion. It has been very much a gradual and expanding process,” said French.
To learn more about programming and events at the Tides Institute and Art Museum, visit online at www.tidesinstitute.org or in person at 43 Water Street in Eastport.