Reflecting on Featherstone

Francine Kelly, director of Featherstone Center for the Arts. — File photo by Fae Kontje-Gibbs

Now that summer is winding down, Featherstone Center for the Arts executive director Francine Kelly has a few moments to reflect on what she calls a “very prosperous season.”

During the past seven and a half years since she assumed leadership of the Oak Bluffs’ nonprofit art center, Ms. Kelly has steadily developed Featherstone into a recognizable year-round cultural center that serves children and adults, residents and visitors alike.

“In the beginning, all I heard was, ‘Where’s Featherstone?'” she says, laughing.

It’s not a question she hears much anymore. With summer activities daily — children’s camps, classes for adults and children, concerts, theater, lectures, an annual poetry festival, a weekly flea market, and frequent exhibition openings, Ms. Kelly has lived up to her promise and her marketing slogan: “The Arts are Alive at Featherstone.”

“When I first arrived, it was called ‘a hidden gem,'” she says. “I’m a programmer. We’re not all the way there yet, but I’m hoping soon people will just say we’re a gem and forget the hidden part. A lot of the new programs and classes we’ve developed since 2003 have helped put Featherstone on the Vineyard map.”

This summer in the gallery, she introduced themed exhibitions with guest curators, and the new shows — quilts, wampum, ceramics, and glass — brought large numbers of newcomers to the center.

She says. “I was surprised at how many new people discovered Featherstone this summer. The wampum exhibit was our most well-attended event. I think people turned out to see exhibitions because of the different subject matter. It wasn’t just painting and photography.”

Musical Mondays, featuring local musicians, continued to attract a record number of Island families who came to sit on the rolling lawn at Featherstone, and enjoy relaxing evenings of live entertainment.

“People love the concerts,” Ms. Kelly says. “I’ve had lots of locals tell me that they lock up their businesses early, rush home to grab the family and a pizza on the way. They don’t like to miss the event.”

And the Tuesday Flea & Fine Arts Market enjoyed 10 out of 11 sunny weeks and great attendance. “We had to cut back on the number of vendors,” Ms. Kelly says. “People complained that they had too much to see and that they never made it around to take in all the displays.”

According to Ms. Kelly, the center’s collaboration with Art Farm provided theater for children and adults as well as another dimension to Featherstone’s already broad array of offerings.

Also new this season were imaginative expansions of Featherstone’s traditional art openings. Launching the season was the themed Flower Show, curated by Holly Alaimo, the former owner of Dragonfly Gallery in Oak Bluffs, which opened with a garden tea party and fashion show coordinated by event producer Marla Blakey. “Lots of people came who had never come before,” Ms. Kelly says.

Wrapping up the summer, Featherstone hosted The Art of the Ceramic Bowl, which Ms. Kelly describes as a “great event.” Potters from Featherstone and Island-wide were invited to submit soup bowls to sell at the opening. Guests who purchased a bowl (all were $25), then had it filled with soup, accompanied by artisan bread donated by Rickard’s Bakery, and for dessert, ice cream sandwiches. More than 200 bowls were sold, the profits used to purchase a new digitized kiln for Featherstone.

In addition to the center’s art classes for children, Ms. Kelly introduced several new camps for older youth, including photography and video arts. “The students seemed really enthusiastic,” she says. “They came away with projects they created using the information and techniques they learned.”

With donations up from 2009, Ms. Kelly looks forward to a strong 2011. “We’ll be celebrating our 15th year in this location,” she says. “We’re planning some surprise events and programs to honor our founders and to move us ahead for the next 15 years.”

Ms. Kelly defines her challenge for 2011 as being to capture more financial support in order to perpetuate Featherstone’s unique mission. Her continuing goal is to heighten potential donors’ awareness of Featherstone’s value to the Island.

“One of my overall goals is to encourage people with resources to recognize and honor the center’s contribution to the arts on the Vineyard,” she says. “While we all know that conservation groups, the hospital, and Community Services are vital, I also think that our role as a not-for-profit organization supporting the arts and artists is extremely important to quality of life on the Island.”

And although summer’s seemingly nonstop activities have slowed to a more manageable pace, Featherstone is gearing up for a delicious fall event: Its annual Chocolate Festival, which celebrates the flavor and art of chocolate. Scheduled for October 8-10, with a Friday evening preview party, Ms. Kelly says it’s one of the year’s most popular events.

The year’s programs will wrap up with the Holiday Gift Show, November 19 to December 19, featuring gifts made by Vineyard artists.

Having survived another busy summer, Ms. Kelly breathes a small sigh of relief. “It was a good season, well-attended, well-received,” she says, a note of satisfaction in her voice. “The arts are truly alive at Featherstone.”

Featherstone Center for the Arts, 480 Barnes Road, Oak Bluffs, 508-693-1850.