The art of regionalism


Being called to a marathon government meeting of representatives from the six Island towns might sound like a fitting punishment for something you did that wasn’t terribly nice. But in fact, the 18 members of the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council can reliably expect to leave this Sunday’s annual grant meeting fatigued, but also nourished and even exhilarated from their six hours of work together.

A decade ago, before there was a Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council, six separate town arts councils each year doled out their shares of state money to support cultural enterprises on the Island. Dan Waters was a newly-minted member of the West Tisbury council when state budget cuts hit arts funding hard in 2002. He looked at the inefficiency of six councils and suspected that Vineyarders could do better working together.

Each town was receiving about $2,000 in arts funding and reviewing dozens of applications, and the paperwork involved was daunting. “It began to feel like a fool’s errand to distribute that kind of money and keep the books and maintain the transparency and accountability that you have to do with public money,” Dan told me in a conversation last week.

Almost on a lark, Dan picked up the phone and called the Massachusetts Cultural Council to leave a message, asking how difficult it might be to regionalize the six Island councils. “I thought, I’ll never hear back from these people,” he said. “But I got a call back in 20 minutes from somebody saying the state was very interested in talking with us about this.”

Dan Waters reached out to the cultural councils of his five neighbor towns. Some of them were a bit suspicious at first about collaborating — that’s natural. “But it turns out we all had the same problems,” he said. “The six councils were seeing the same applications, because people were applying to all six towns for local money for projects that would be enjoyed by the whole Island. So you had six times the bookkeeping being done for each project.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council, comprising three members from each Island town, convened for its first Islandwide grant round in November of 2003. From that first meeting, it was clear that what had been achieved by regionalizing involved much more than a savings in paperwork.

Suddenly there was a critical mass of wisdom in the room, a knowledge of the Island’s cultural scene that enriched the conversation and empowered the group to advance the arts here in new and better ways. “We discovered that we could pool not only our money but also our understanding of this community,” Dan said. “When we put all that together in one room, not only were we richer — we were smarter.”

Dan’s ally in organizing the regional cultural council, and its central supporting figure in all the years since, has been Pia Webster of Edgartown, who was executive secretary for the town of West Tisbury back when the regional body was first being organized. Her passion for an open, transparent and fair public process has shaped the workings of the group; her patient guidance of artists through the application forms has helped open funding opportunities for many Island people whose creative talents are far greater than their spreadsheet skills.

I served on the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council for six years, leaving after two terms in 2011. In my last year with the council, we nominated Pia Webster and she was honored by the state with its Leadership Circle Award for her work as our volunteer administrator.

Dan Waters knew from his first experiences working with Pia Webster that she could be a powerful helper for a new regional arts council: “The cultural council is all about involving people in government,” he said. “It’s about public funding, but it’s also about something that touches people in a personal, emotional way — because that’s what art does. I knew that if anybody could open these doors and make the process transparent and welcoming to people, it would be Pia. Boy, was I right.”

As a regional body, the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council found itself wielding a new measure of political leverage for advancing the arts here. Soon, council representatives were asking their towns to contribute $1,500 to the Island’s cultural funding kitty; now those contributions are embedded in every town budget. This Sunday at the Howes House, the Island council will be reviewing 31 grant applications and awarding a total of $36,500.

I remember the afternoon several years ago when my turn came to represent the council at a budget meeting of the Edgartown selectmen. When our request came up, one of the selectmen asked what percentage of the council’s funds had come back to Edgartown that year. I replied that I was proud to say I didn’t know the answer, and that most likely no member of the regional council has ever bothered to work it out: When we gather each fall, it’s in the spirit of supporting those projects that show the most promise of advancing the Island cultural scene — and with the understanding that Island consumers of culture will happily deliver themselves to wherever the best programs are being presented.

The selectmen seemed satisfied, approved the request, and moved on.

The lessons I take away from my experience with the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council are two: that a regional approach to the Island’s challenges can have powerful benefits beyond mere efficiency, and that even when you look at the Island whole, this place is still small enough that two individuals like Pia Webster and Dan Waters can make a huge difference.