Melissa Breese brings the MVAA into the future


When Melissa Breese, artist and art educator, was appointed director of The Martha’s Vineyard Art Association (MVAA), four years ago, she knew she’d have her hands full.

“Managing a gallery, representing 68 artist members, maintaining a high school scholarship program, overseeing art classes for children and adults, fundraising, and curating our permanent art collection of nearly 100 works is a very busy job,” Ms. Breese says. “But I love it, and I’m honored to have been chosen.”

Raised on Nantucket, Ms. Breese is no stranger to art or gallery life. Her parents owned galleries on both Nantucket and in Newport, R.I., and she grew up surrounded by 19th and 20th century American and European art. Trained both as a painter and as an educator, Ms. Breese has worked in galleries on Nantucket, as well as in San Francisco and New York.

The Old Sculpin Gallery, home to MVAA, is unique. The 245-year-old building has a varied history. It was once a sail loft, a whale oil factory, an old grain store, and a boat builder’s shed, the wooden plank floor still revealing the wear in front of what was once the boat builder’s tool bench.

It’s no wonder that change comes slowly to its occupants. “It comes glacially,” Ms. Breese notes with humor. “But people are beginning to embrace it.”

The art association was established to showcase the work of its artists and to enrich the cultural climate Island-wide, but became known informally as the “Edgartown Art Club,” and was regarded as an elitist organization. “That’s no longer the case,” Ms. Breese says. “We welcome new artists on the Vineyard and encourage emerging artists to apply for membership.”

Artists, whose work is juried, are required to live and work on the Island. Once an artist is accepted, membership is for life as long as the $75 dues are paid each year.

Although Ms. Breese values many of the Old Sculpin’s traditions, she has turned her trained eye on every aspect of the gallery. She installed a state-of-the-art wire hanging system and new lights, expanded the summer season to include a portion of spring and fall, exposed the permanent collection to a larger number of Island residents and visitors through shows in public venues, raised the standards for admission by artists, added live music to make weekly openings more dynamic, and trained her staff to represent the MVAA artists more professionally.

“In the past, directors often just lived here in the summer,” Ms. Breese explains. “And many served for a season only.”

She says that her tenure at Old Sculpin has taught her the business side of running a gallery:

While she’s glad that she doesn’t own her own gallery — “I’m glad I’m the director of a nonprofit” — she credits neccessity with her ability to handle the business aspects: “I couldn’t even balance my own checkbook when I started. Now I understand the financial aspects of operating the organization.”

“The Old Sculpin used to be considered the best gallery on the Island,” says fine art photographer and Oak Bluffs gallery owner Alison Shaw. She is an honorary member of MVAA’s advisory board, and has been involved with the MVAA since she was a child in the late 1960s when she showed her pen and ink sketches. “It’s an emotional piece of my past,” she says. “It declined somewhat over the years, but Melissa is terrific, and she’s brought a new luster to the place. She gets out there in the community and takes action.”

Fellow MVAA member Louisa Gould also applauds Ms. Breese’s accomplishments. The photographer and Vineyard Haven gallery owner says, “She’s greatly expanded the membership and brought the permanent collection out to the community. The Old Sculpin is an important starting ground for new artists and a wonderful meeting place. There’s no art museum on the Island so the gallery fills that void.”

Ms. Breese believes that the Old Sculpin is again growing to become one of the best galleries on the Island.

“Andrew Moore, Alison Shaw, and Louisa Gould all started here,” she says. “Ovid Ward and Anthony Benton Gude, Thomas Hart Benton’s grandson, have both become members. I think it’s amazing that their work can hang side-by-side with that of an emerging artist like 24-year-old photographer Amaru Pareja or Island native Ben Scott, a young mixed-media artist.”

With two fall shows of the permanent collection on the docket (one at the Chilmark Bank and the other at the Chilmark Library), Ms. Breese is eager to work toward the creation of a more permanent up-Island venue for the Art Association. “I’d like to see us cater more to the year-round Island population,” she says.

Until then, you’ll find Ms. Breese, who has two children Cyrus, 14, and Susa, 11, at work on the Edgartown waterfront, hanging weekly shows during the season from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day weekend, gently urging the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association into the 21st century.