This year’s creative living award goes to painter Rez Williams

Kenneth Vincent, another West Tisbury artist, catches up with Mr. Williams at a reception after the ceremony. — Photo by Tony Omer

West Tisbury painter Rez Williams, known for his large paintings of working fishing boats painted with his own mix of colors and imagery, received a rock and $1,000 Monday. The recipient of the Permanent Endowment Fund of Martha’s Vineyard’s annual creative living award, Mr. Williams was honored at a ceremony at the Grange Hall surrounded by family, friends, fellow artists and his paintings.

Edward Miller of Chilmark, a fund board member, presented the award and explained that the rock symbolizes the permanence of the fund.

“This is a little like an out of body experience,” Mr. Williams said in his brief remarks. Attributing the quote to a friend, he said, “It really is the compellation of all the people you know and all of their influences that have gotten me to wherever it is I am.”

Fund board member Paul Karasik, a cartoonist who is also development director at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, spoke about the quality of Mr. Williams’s work and how it transcends the Island. State Representative Timothy Madden presented a citation to Mr. Williams from the State House in recognition of his “love of and contributions to the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.”

Brendan O’ Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS), spoke at some length about Mr. Williams’s involvement and influence in Island conservation groups, including his term as president of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and his membership in VCS.

He recounted many of the projects Mr. Williams worked on during the 12 years he spent as a VCS board member and spoke about his influence on the other board members. “His demeanor is quiet but he has great strength of character,…that expressed itself as a sort of calm courage,” Mr. O’Neill said.

Artist Ruth Kirchmeier of West Tisbury spoke about another of Mr. Williams’s gifts to the community, the gift of his art. “They startle and attract,” she said of his paintings.

She added that after admiring his work, when she finally met him, “I was drawn to the intensity of his personality. His lively intellectual curiosity and his sense of adventure and wonder at what the world has to offer.”

Mr. Williams joins a distinguished list of 30-plus previous recipients. The award is given by the fund to those who have contributed significantly to the quality of life on the Vineyard. But it is one small part of a very well funded and important Island institution.

The Permanent Endowment fund is a public charity that assists donors in preserving assets for charitable purposes on the Vineyard. The fund’s goal is to improve the quality of life for all of the Island’s communities and to promote and increase responsible and effective philanthropy, according to its website. The fund’s first gift was $60,000 from the estate of Ruth Bogan of Oak Bluffs in 1983. The Ruth Bogan-Ruth Redding (Ms. Bogan’s friend) Memorial Fund has sponsored the creative living award since that first year.

Wide range

In her remarks Monday night, Anne Williamson, fund board chairman, described the fund as the Island’s largest charity. She said the fund has grown from the initial $60,000 to more than $8 million with 31 funds that have donated over 925 grants totaling more than $1.9 million to Vineyard nonprofits, and civic organizations. She said that the fund has awarded more than $1.6 million in scholarships to Vineyard high school graduates since its inception.

According to its website, “The Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard is the Island’s community foundation dedicated to supporting local public and nonprofit organizations. The Endowment’s purpose is to put charitable contributions to work for the people of Martha’s Vineyard by making grants that address community priorities, funding scholarships for Island students and building an endowment that will provide resources to enhance and preserve the quality of life on the Vineyard forever.”

In addition to its regular responsibilities, the Endowment is working to become an information base for those who want to know about Island non-profits.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday following the Monday presentation, Ms. Williamson said, “Whether a person wants to donate directly to an Island non-profit or donate to the endowment where their money can support a particular group or cause in perpetuity, we want to be able to provide support and guidance.”

Ms. Williamson, an Edgartown resident, said she was drawn to the board originally because of its emphasis on scholarships. She has been a teacher at the Tisbury School for 25 years where she teaches third grade. She is the mother of an eighth grade daughter. Ms. Williamson is the endowment’s go-to person judging from the responses of several other board members whose first response when asked about the fund was, “Talk to Anne.”

“Being on the board is a lot of work but it is a labor of love and I love the board,” she said. “It is a very smart board with experience in many different areas. We don’t always agree going in, but we always come to a consensus.”

She said the board members are all Island-based, and every town is represented. They are people who love the Vineyard, she said, and who make almost every meeting. “It is a very hands-on board. We are always looking for ways to improve what we do, for ways to better meet Island needs.”

In addition to the ten board meetings each year, there are three sub-committees that meet as needed: governance, scholarship, and finance. The fund accepts applications for grants annually and has an almost unlimited range of nonprofit organizations and causes it can support. In addition to a written application the endowment requires a face-to-face meeting with applicants.

“Sometimes talking to the people involved gives you a much better picture of what the group is capable of doing. Sometimes that just doesn’t come across as well in the written application,” Ms. Williamson said. “We also require progress reports from grantees to help us judge the effectiveness of the grants.”

While the endowment’s operating expenses are minimal, even the group’s office space is donated by the Martha’s Vineyard Saving Bank, operating funds are generated by a one percent charge on donations, much less than many other similar funds off-Island according to Ms. Williamson.

Hundreds of groups and individuals have been helped by the endowment yet the group has had a quiet fund raising presence on the Island. Their only public event is the creative living award presentation and they only mail out one solicitation letter a year but that may change. “We have talked about the need to hire a full-time director, with well developed fund raising skills, sometime in the near future to help us grow the fund so we can help more people,” Ms. Williamson said.

The fund was run entirely by its board until early last year when a part time manager, Andria Jason was hired. Ms. Jason grew up in Chilmark and earned a master’s degree in organizational development from Marymount University, where she served as the assistant director for international student services. Ms. Jason handles the administrative responsibilities for the endowment and assists the board in its work to bring charitable resources to Island nonprofits and students.

“The endowment’s assets come from donations, bequests, people who have left money to us in their wills and people who want their donation to go to a good cause,” Ms. Jason said. “One advantage with a community foundation as opposed to a regular non-profit is community foundations are here forever.” She said their donations often come from people who have a passion and want to support a group, as she puts it, “throughout time.

Ms. Jason said the board creates a spending policy for the year, based on a portion of the assets and what they think the investments will produce. This year it was three percent she said. “The board looks at their investments, and at how the market is doing. During slow years the board has decided to spend more than the endowment was expected to earn in order to maintain the level of grants.”

“A donor can create a fund for whatever he wants, within legal guidelines,” she said. “Some funds might be specifically for scholarships, some might be based on a particular academic major or based on need.” If people are considering donating for the first time I would talk to them about their interests, their philosophy and try to find the best fit for them.

On the grant side, grants run in every direction. We have a general fund which any non-profit group could qualify for she said.

When asked why a prospective donor should contribute to the endowment rather than directly to a non-profit she said without hesitation, “because we are here forever.”

“If you want to give a smaller donation to a group that you know that’s easy,” she said, “but when you are looking for something permanent, with a will, you don’t know what’s going to be here in twenty years. The Permanent Endowment will direct the grants to meet the conditions of the donor forever.”

For more information on the Permanent Endowment Fund call 508-338-4665.