Eastport Organization Celebrates Twenty Years Reinvigorating Passamaquoddy Region

The fact of the matter is, Eastport is a long way away for most Mainers. An island until the 1930s when a causeway was built, the city of Eastport is a dead end.

But not in the mind of Eastport native Hugh French. French and his wife Kristin McKinlay purchased the old Eastport Savings Bank when the two moved to the city from Portland in 2002. Their intent was to renovate the building to make it into an arts establishment, an idea that many considered foolish. In a region where making a living was always difficult and remains so, starting a non-profit organization focused on arts and culture seemed a recipe for failure.

But the couple persevered. This year the Tides Institute and Museum of Art celebrated its twentieth anniversary.

“The Institute is not solely an arts organization or museum,” explained Hugh French in an email. “While art is certainly a central focus, we have strong interests in history, architecture, historic preservation, community and regional revitalization and Maine-New Brunswick relations. We have had to weave together a lot of different things to make things work here and to have the kind of impact we’re trying to have.”

When renovations began on the old bank building, word went out. French and McKinlay were interested in what families in the area had saved over the years: old documents, art works, sardine tins, the tangible remainders of decades past. McKinlay spoke about the low-key manner in which the couple built the Institute’s varied collections in a 2013 article in The Atlantic.

“Previously, there wasn’t an institution here that people knew and trusted, so people who had artwork, documents, or other valuable things to donate sent their items elsewhere – to other museums around the state or beyond, to the archives of their alma maters, etc.,” she said. “But because people knew Hugh, knew the Frenches, they were willing to give us their items of value. So, things started coming in.”

The Tides Institute set out to do more than just present the artifacts of Eastport’s by-gone days. The organization was determined from the start to act as a catalyst for reestablishing the city and region’s sense of place.

“Many of the communities of the region have lost significant population, Eastport 75%, Calais and Lubec 50%,” French noted. “We have wanted to show that this region has always been a part of broader trends and forces, whether it be industry, transportation, fashion, architecture, the arts. The region is not and never has been some sort of completely removed backwater area.”

The Institute began acquiring architecturally significant buildings in Eastport that were in danger of being demolished. In addition to the Eastport Savings Bank, which operates at the Institute’s headquarters, other Institute buildings include the 1887 Masonic Building, currently under renovation; the 1820 Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) building; the 1828-29 Seaman’s Church; 1819 North Church; and an 1887 former retail building on Water Street. The latter building houses the StudioWorks Artists in Residence program, begun in 2013. The program puts visiting artists right in the center of the city, clearly visible to passersby. The resident artists work within the community, bringing their talents to local schools and the public. Thus far, 71 artists from 18 different states and three foreign countries have participated in the program.

“The Institute started in 2002 with the purchase of a single threatened historic building in downtown Eastport and a minuscule collection of a few paintings and photographs. We now have a campus of eight historic buildings that otherwise would have been destroyed, and significant and wide-ranging cultural collections that reflect and have rebuilt the cultural legacy of the region, a great deal of which came close to being lost,” French said.

The Passamaquoddy Bay region is broad, encompassing communities in both New Brunswick and Maine. The ties among the towns around the bay are based on family lineage, fishing, farming, and lumbering, and the culture of the indigenous peoples who have lived there for millennia. Yet the shifts of population, driven largely by changing economic forces, left the region depleted in population and energy. Resurrecting a sense of Eastport and the region’s long heritage has been an underlying theme of the Institute.

“We have an extensive research and reference library that reflects the region’s culture and connections to the broader world. We are putting much of our collections online to make them more accessible and are developing an online database to the region’s architecture,” French said. “We wanted to show that things are possible in this region when a prevailing attitude might be that they aren’t, whether it be restoring abandoned and threatened historic buildings, the rebuilding of a region’s cultural legacy, or the establishment of new programs and celebrations like our New Year’s Eve Sardine and Maple Leaf Drop,” French said.

For seventeen years, to honor New Year’s Eve in both countries the Institute has held a drop of an illuminated maple leaf from its headquarters, followed an hour later at midnight by a brilliantly-lit maple leaf. It’s a tradition that many never miss and a vivid sign of the creative energy generated by this innovative organization.

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