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For much of the twentieth century local tourism concentrated on the island’s maritime heritage, from the whaling industry to the finely–preserved architecture that survives from that era, but a second undeniable identity has surfaced since World War II—that of a mecca for the fine arts. Over fifty galleries and studio–galleries dot today’s landscape. Yet there was a time when a single gallery kept the scene alive, and a strong cooperative of artists and patrons helped develop a fledgling art colony into a powerhouse with a sizable census of talent.
The natural beauty of Nantucket has always attracted painters, who proliferated during an affluent era of tall ships and continued here until American masters like Eastman Johnson and Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin ushered in the Twentieth Century with exceptional oeuvres of local art, yet the necessary conditions for a true art colony did not exist. These conditions—a central art figure, a shared patch of real estate, an influx of colonists—surfaced in the 1920s and percolated into the early 1940s before the colony reached a moment of crisis and transformation. At the heart of this transformation lies the story of the Artists Association of Nantucket (AAN). Founded in 1945, the association gathered together the key personalities of a seminal time period, and it left an indelible stamp on the Nantucket community that continues to this day.
When researching a starting point for Nantucket as a true art colony, all roads lead back to Frank Swift Chase.
Chase was educated at the Art Students League, both in New York City and a bit later at the League’s summer school, when it existed in congress with the famed turn-of-the-century arts and crafts colony of Byrdcliffe in the bucolic village of Woodstock, New York. Chase became assistant director of the summer school under John Carlson in 1911 and later was instrumental in founding the Woodstock Artists Association. He made an initial teaching trip to Nantucket in 1920 and returned nearly every summer into the mid-’50s to teach and paint. Early on, Chase rented from his good friend (and influential artist/inventor) Tony Sarg on North Liberty Street. Upon an invitation by Elizabeth Saltonstall to join the AAN in June 1948, Chase became an exhibiting member and a juror for some of its special exhibitions.
A talented group of women students emerged from Chase’s landscape-painting classes to dominate the local art scene in the ’30s and ’40s, and they became his true legacy: Anne Ramsdell Congdon, Emily Hoffmeier, Elizabeth Saltonstall, Harriett Lord, Ruth Haviland Sutton, and Isabelle Hollister Tuttle. These women would surface again and again at the heart of important Nantucket art endeavors, especially when they involved the AAN.
You can imagine Chase in his bow tie and spectacles recounting anecdotes from his summers at idyllic Byrdcliffe as he taught his ladies; one of them, Florence Lang, surely was intrigued by his portrayal of a community devoted to the arts. She owned a good deal of prime property along the Nantucket waterfront where they painted. Idle property.
In 1917, Henry and Florence Osgood Rand Lang purchased South Wharf from W. T. Swain and Company, and they started their own Island Service Company (bought by Sherburne Associates in 1964). Their large purchase and later acquisitions in the area of Commercial Wharf and the strip of beach along Washington Street included scallop shanties and boathouses that lay in disrepair as well as an old candle factory. With an influx of Frank Swift Chase’s students looking for summer housing, and her acquaintance with the most talented in his group, Florence Lang saw the potential in her unused real estate and fixed up the wharf shacks in the ’20s.
“For a while the studios were simple,” says Florence Deeley Clifford of her aunt’s project. “They had a cot to sleep on, and the only water inside ran into a soapstone sink. The toilets and showers were shared.”
The list of Lang’s tenants included many of her companions in Chase’s classes. Elizabeth Saltonstall, for example, lived at WaterEdge and the Scallop housed Ruth Haviland Sutton. Lang also transformed the candle factory on Commercial Wharf into the Candle House Studio. A major patron of the arts as well as a real estate maven, Lang also moved Hayden’s Bathhouse from South Beach Street to the basin on Easy Street in 1924 and created the Easy Street Gallery, the undisputed social nexus and exhibition venue of the struggling art scene. “Everyone showed there,” says Clifford. “Sarg, Chase, Anne Congdon…all of them.”
Lang’s August “open” shows at the Easy Street were echoed later in the Artists Association’s annual “open” shows, eventually termed member shows.
After the death of Florence Lang in 1943, the face of the art scene changed. The Easy Street Gallery closed with no replacement in sight. The Candle House and Lang’s waterfront cottages were put on the real estate market. For many artists, the future looked bleak. If not for the singular vision of a special patron, and the strong character of the core women painters of the time, the promise of the art colony could have been lost.
Ruth Haviland Sutton preserved a part of the waterfront legacy by purchasing and subsequently renting the Candle House and a grouping of Lang’s cottages to fellow artists.
Elizabeth Saltonstall rallied others to seek a new exhibition venue.
And a man named Everett Umberto Crosby acted on a project of no small proportions.
The role Everett U. Crosby played in the events surrounding 1945 started with a bit of bad weather. Extremely bad weather.
The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 produced some of the strongest winds ever to blast the New England shore. The worst of the September storm remained somewhat to the south, but that put Nantucket closer to the epicenter. The wind shear reached 150 miles an hour, and it toppled great numbers of trees on the Cape, swallowed Lightship LV 73 and its crew in the Vineyard Sound, and tore the roofs of several Nantucket buildings, including the venerable but no longer useful Thomas Macy Warehouse on Straight Wharf.
Everett U. Crosby, chairman of the community-oriented Nantucket Foundation, spearheaded the foundation’s purchase of the stricken shipping warehouse to “take the place of the Easy Street Galleries” in the role of the island’s arts center (Inquirer and Mirror, Nov. 11, 1944). With a bequest made by Kenneth Taylor and his wife, Molly, a watercolor painter, “the transformation of an ancient wreck of a warehouse” was reported as an achievement of Crosby’s “planning and forethought.” The three-story brick featured thick walls, great front doors, the old water-access door at the rear, and a windlass and hoist used to lift sails and ship’s gear through a trapdoor to the second floor. The project included the purchase of an adjoining two-story wooden building known at first as the Little Shop, and after renovation in 1949 as the Little Gallery. The main building included three galleries: the Upper Gallery, the Print Room (also on the second floor), and the Lower Gallery.
The Kenneth Taylor Galleries opened to the public at 3:30 in the afternoon on July 1, 1945, with stirring speeches by Everett Crosby and Austin Strong and exhibits honoring Nantucket artists of the past, including Edgar W. Jenney, Eastman Johnson, and Molly Taylor. By the end of that month, active local artists like Peter Kerr and H. Emerson Tuttle had also displayed their work.
Crosby continued as chairman of the Nantucket Foundation until 1958, when his health no longer allowed him to serve. At that time, an arrangement with the Nantucket Historical Trust (and later with the Nantucket Historical Association, who officially assumed ownership in the ’80s) was made for them to supervise the foundation’s property and affairs. The trust nominated members to the foundation, chiefly trustees Henry B. Coleman and Walter Beinecke Jr., and in a September 30, 1958, letter they agreed, “so far as it lies in our power” to “maintain the Straight Wharf galleries property as an art center along the lines in which it has been conducted in the past.”
At the request of patrons and local artists, Everett Crosby called a meeting on August 27, 1945, in the Lower Gallery for a “free and it is hoped many-sided preliminary discussion of the formation of a suggested league of artists.”
Though Colonel Julian Yates footnoted in 1946 that no record of the first meeting existed, the Inquirer and Mirror reported, “after considerable discussion it was agreed to form an artists’ association.” The minutes of the following meeting, held September 6, are headed “The second meeting of the Nantucket Artists’ Association.” Temporary AAN chairman Crosby presented a draft of the bylaws, and those present were designated, by default, “as the executive committee of the association,” with H. Emerson Tuttle elected chairman and Peter Kerr secretary-treasurer. Annual dues were set at $1.00.
Over the winter of 1945–46, eminent printmaker and Yale academic Emerson Tuttle and art instructor Peter Kerr initiated the business of the association and its plan to mount the first member exhibition in August of 1946. With the sudden death of Tuttle, the AAN was forced to regroup. The executive committee then included Elmer W. Greene Jr., chairman; Colonel Julian Yates, secretary-treasurer; and a familiar list of board members Isabelle Hollister Tuttle, Georgie Putney (secretary-treasurer 1947–49), Louise Emerson, Harriet Lord, Elizabeth Saltonstall, Ruth Haviland Sutton, Florence Schepp, and Emily Hoffmeier, with Everett U. Crosby as a continuing ex officio member from the Nantucket Foundation. Of this group, the two most influential artists were Tuttle’s wife, Isabelle, and Elizabeth Saltonstall, a Boston lithographer whose “presence was quite influential,” says Reggie Levine. For decades she played an important role in the colony by bringing together key patrons and artists.
The July 3, 1946, meeting also elected Sarah Baker, Charlotte Kimball, William O. Stevens, Mary Turlay Robinson, Anne Beach, Austin Strong, Eleanor Graham, and Mrs. and Mrs. James Reid Parker as members in the role of Advisory Committee.
Though Everett Crosby played an essential part in founding the AAN, a survey of this roll call reveals an interesting dynamic. Excluding patrons and a handful of artists, a balanced combination of traditional Frank Swift Chase students and members of the modernist 45 Group dominate the mix. Through their alliance, the AAN became a stabilizing force for an art colony that had existed loosely for two decades.
Many AAN founders also exhibited as part of the avant-garde 45 Group, a tight-knit entity that championed nonobjective art and modern ideals. The 45s included, among others, Emerson, Saltonstall, Beach, Kerr, Lord, Kimball, Baker,, and Graham—the last few part a contingent from the Washington, D.C.–Baltimore area. The 45s did not always get along with the traditionalists during the early years at the AAN, according to local authority Reggie Levine, and the group presented a separate self-titled show in the galleries during the latter ’40s. By the time the 45 Group show melded into the annual Artist–Patron exhibition in 1950, modern art was integral to the fabric of the association and most all of the Kenneth Taylor exhibitions.
The two most influential of the 45s, other than the omnipresent Saltonstall, were Louise Emerson and Charlotte Kimball, both of whom served with dedication during the infancy of the AAN. Though relatively inactive as a separate entity after 1950, the group’s powerful influence offered renewed vitality to a once-conservative community of artists.
In 1956, C. Robert Perrin would open his door as the first studio gallery on Old South Wharf; later, George Vigouroux with the Lobster Pot Gallery (1958) and Reggie Levine painting in the Granary would locate there as well, along with a progression of small studios; but for a decade and more the AAN was the arts center on Nantucket. Candlelight readings by Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams. An exhibition of works on paper by Diego Rivera. A piano recital by Leonard Shure. An exhibition on loan from the Met that included Max Weber and Thomas Hart Benton. Lectures on modern art by members of the 45 Group. Indeed, the AAN column in the newspaper read like a report on the local scene in general, and as the association expanded in size and stature, so did its scope.
In 1950, Georgie Walling was elected secretary of the AAN after years of being its closest contact with the Nantucket Foundation, and this jump-started the informal process of the AAN assuming, once and for all, management and daily activities of the Kenneth Taylor Galleries. The ’50s would also bring stable leadership within the executive board, with two photographers, Walter Pollak and Louis Davidson, accounting for a total of twelve years as chairmen between 1948 and 1965. By then another influential teacher, Philip Hicken, had arrived and launched a new wave of painters. By 1970, Reggie Levine’s Main Street Gallery joined the Lobster Pot and the AAN as a third large gallery, and the expansion of the art scene was in full swing. Today the AAN is still “a main factor in sustaining and nurturing a cohesive and coherent art community,” says Levine. “Though no longer unique, its importance as an exemplar is undiminished.”
The AAN Permanent Collection started with donations and purchases from the earliest days of the Kenneth Taylor Galleries and the AAN, and by 1949 it had built to about thirty works of art. The collection now numbers over seven hundred works.
From 2005 to spring 2006, observing the sixtieth anniversary of the AAN, local art historian Robert Frazier and artist George Thomas curated a large Permanent Collection museum exhibition at the Coffin School in collaboration with the Egan Maritime Foundation. “The Art Colony on Nantucket” included work by many of those mentioned above as well as representatives from the nearly two hundred active practitioners of fine art today. And, yes, every one of them owes a nod to the key people who made our art colony possible: Frank Swift Chase, Florence Lang, Everett U. Crosby, the 45 Group, the keepers of the Sidewalk Art Show, and, ultimately, the powerful women who founded and perpetuated the Artists Association.
© Robert Frazier
24 Amelia Drive
Telephone: 508 228 0722
Fax: 508 228 9700
19 Washington Street
Telephone: 508 228 0294
Fax: 508 228 9700
Artists Association of Nantucket
P.O. Box 1104, Nantucket MA 02554