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Martha’s Vineyard Museum

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Ann DuCharme, Martha's Vineyard Museum Education Director, shown with an Island Grown school collaborative class of second graders in Edgartown. Three teachers standing in the background are (left to right) Melinda Rabbit Defeo, Kaila Binney and Claire Lafave. — Photo courtesy of the MV Museum.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is the recipient of a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grant, issued by the NEH Office of Challenge Grants, must be matched by $1.5 million in private contributions and will endow the museum education department, including the position of education director, the museum announced in a press release. Income from the endowment will support the operation, growth, and development of the museum’s humanities-based interpretive programs.

“This wonderful news couldn’t come at a better time,” Executive Director David Nathans said. “The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is at a moment of transformation, and is building its future around education. This NEH grant will act as both an endorsement and an incentive. It announces to potential matching funders that we are clearly in the education business to stay. What a great Christmas present for the children of the Island.”

In announcing the award, Andrea Anderson, Acting Director of the NEH Office of Challenge Grants, said, “Evaluators believed that the museum will increase public understanding of the humanities for residents and visitors alike. All agreed that the biggest beneficiaries will be the Island’s more than 2,100 public school children who will show gains in improved historical literacy and critical thinking skills. The Museum is an important cultural entity for the Island, and it has an opportunity to reach beyond its local audience to serve the many international visitors who come to Martha’s Vineyard each year.”

The museum maintains a strong presence in the Island’s public schools, where Education Director Ann DuCharme and staff provided 143 classes in museum-based education in the 2013-14 academic year, according to a press release. Specialized humanities programs are also offered for pre-K students, and the museum collaborates with the local chapter of Head Start to promote school readiness of young children from low-income families on the Island. Museum Conversations, which reaches elders at the various senior gathering centers, is having a successful first year with support from the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard.

In 2011, the museum purchased the former Vineyard Haven Marine Hospital overlooking Lagoon Pond as part of an ambitious project to enlarge its facilities, enhance its programs, and forge a more vital role in the Island’s educational and cultural life. Visit www.mvmuseum.org for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits.

Enid Yandell with the Pan sculpture. Ms. Yandell founded the Branstock School. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by current dates or events.

Enid Yandell at the Branstock School.
Enid Yandell at the Branstock School.

It is difficult to identify any particular style or quality that encompasses the artistic heritage of Martha’s Vineyard. The Island has played host to many well-known individuals. Though much has been said about Thomas Hart Benton and the artists of the Barn House collective in Chilmark, less has been said about the Branstock School, an institution founded and run by the early 20th century sculptor Enid Yandell. Co-existing for a brief time at the turn of the century, they reflect the growing tensions between traditional and modern art playing out in Europe and all over America.

Plaster relief of Enid Yandell, found in the Edgartown School.
Plaster relief of Enid Yandell, found in the Edgartown School.

Miss Yandell, a sculptor originally from Kentucky, established the Branstock School in 1908. Well-known during her lifetime, she was celebrated both for her talent and for succeeding in a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men. She studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy, and in 1893 designed sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago before traveling to Europe where she studied briefly with Auguste Rodin at his Paris studio.  According to Desire Caldwell, an expert on Enid Yandell at the Rhode Island School of Design, her style, like that of many of her contemporaries, reflects a mix of classicism, romanticism, and eclectic symbolism, which one can clearly observe in many of her works, including a monumental statue of Athena that was never cast and a plaster relief recently discovered in the Edgartown School.

Yandell’s sculpture drew inspiration from a variety of sources and seems to be interested in celebrating a national identity. Like many artists, she adopted a style that borrowed heavily from neo-classicism, emphasizing ideal proportions and symbols of Ancient Greece and Rome. In this, she was following a long American tradition.  For America’s founding fathers, Ancient Greek and Roman associations were important in helping to shape a nation founded on rational ideals and principles. They, like artists, believed that the purpose of art was to serve as a tool to elevate and transport its audience away from the menial drudgery of the everyday world. As time wore on, however, artists like Miss Yandell and her contemporaries produced fewer public monuments in favor of private commissions intended for wealthy collectors. In this context Yandell’s decorative and increasingly cryptic art came to be seen as more of status symbol for collectors eager to flaunt their European connections.

Branstock School Brochure.
Branstock School Brochure.

In 1908 she founded the Branstock School at the corner of Davis Lane and School Street in Edgartown. While it began as a sculpture school, in 1909 it expanded to encompass a number of artistic and decorative fields, from painting and drawing to ceramic decoration. Albert Sterner, a New York artist, taught portrait painting while other classes were offered in china decoration, wood block printing, leather tooling, and metal work. Classes were structured affairs and students were required to make a commitment of three months, but enjoyed comfortable accommodations and beautiful surroundings. A small, but elegant tea room attached to the Arts and Crafts Cottage welcomed artists, visitors and collectors who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city in the summer without missing out on its civilized amenities. The school, when it opened, set the tone for Edgartown’s growing artistic community.

In response, by the 1920s there was a growing movement that felt the need to create an artistic style that would better represent the American experience. Some, like Thomas Hart Benton, felt that art was most powerful when it reflected the struggles and triumphs of real people in real life. Though the distinctive style he developed is most commonly associated with the mid-west and Missouri, his summers on Martha’s Vineyard had a strong influence on his work. Like Yandell, Benton received a formal art education and studied extensively in Europe. In 1921, staying on the Vineyard with friends, Benton was inspired by the farmers and fishermen of Chilmark and saw an opportunity to celebrate the nation’s rustic heritage and visceral human experiences. This was a point of view that Benton shared with many. During his summer retreats, he was often a guest at the Chilmark seasonal community known as Barn House, which was founded in 1918 and continues to this day.

Thomas Hart Benton, in the door of his Chilmark studio.
Thomas Hart Benton, in the door of his Chilmark studio.

Coexisting for a just about a decade, Yandell and Benton seem to characterize the regional differences that can still be felt on the Island today. At the turn of the century here on the Island, just as in Europe and all over America artists struggled to redefine their purpose in an increasingly modern world. Though Martha’s Vineyard has long had a mystique as a place out of time and separate from the concerns of the outside world, in this case, the Vineyard was at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde.

Visit www.mvmuseum.org for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is open year-round. Off-season hours are Monday-Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is free to members; admission for non-members is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15, and free for children under the age of 6.