Francine Kelly: The first lady of Featherstone

Ann Smith, left, and Francine Kelly at Featherstone Center for the Arts. — Sam Moore

In 2003 Francine Kelly moved to the Vineyard to retire. The Island had other plans for her. One month after her arrival, Ms. Kelly was tapped to serve as executive director of the then-fledgling Featherstone Center for the Arts. Although she turned the reins over to her daughter Ann Smith in 2010, Ms. Kelly remained very much involved in the year-round community arts center — right up until her passing earlier this month.

Ms. Kelly’s retirement would have been well deserved after a long career in arts administration. For 20 years she served as program director for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest children’s museum. Her most recent position for that organization was as director of community initiatives. According to the the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which honored Ms. Kelly with the Martha’s Vineyard Medal in 2011, she was credited with “assuming a groundbreaking role in using the [Children’s] Museum’s influences to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood.”

Similarly, Ms. Kelly managed a brilliant job of community outreach here on the Island. When she took over as director of Featherstone, the main gallery of the arts campus was open just two days a week and hosted only two shows a year. Now the main gallery is open every day, 11 months of the year, and hosts a themed show every two and a half weeks.

The arts campus now hosts dozens of classes for adults and children, afterschool programs for teens, summer art camps, a media center, darkroom, pottery barn, regularly scheduled music and poetry performances, a lecture series, a flea market, and many annual events including an opera series, the Chocolate Festival, the Holiday Gift Fair, a pottery sale and luncheon, and much more. The majority of these initiatives were implemented by Ms. Kelly during her tenure as executive director.

In a 2010 article, Ms. Kelly told The Times, “When I first started in the job, I often heard, ‘Where’s Featherstone?’ I rarely hear that anymore.”

Community members remembering the former executive director are all in agreement that Ms. Kelly put Featherstone on the map.

“We’ve lost such a big part of the Island support system for the arts,” Holly Alaimo, Featherstone advisory board member and close friend of Ms. Kelly, said. “She made Featherstone. I was there when it was first happening. She just opened up the doors and grew it to the way it is now.

“Francine was so inclusive. She brought everybody together. She did so many things to support artists. Her participation really made a huge difference. It’s a great facility and it’s going to be even greater. Francine knew how to utilize all the things she had and make it work.”

Featherstone is currently undergoing a major renovation project which will involve construction of a new gallery and classroom space, and renovation of existing buildings.

Along with her daughter Ann Smith, Ms. Kelly was honored with the annual Creative Living Award by the the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard in 2015. At the ceremony marking that achievement, Massachusetts Representative Tim Madden thanked Ms. Kelly and Ms. Smith for their “years of dedicated service.”

Ms. Kelly was a beloved member of the Martha’s Vineyard community. Her history with the Island dates back to childhood summers spent here. Even after retiring from the executive director position, she could still be found at almost every Featherstone event, greeting artists, supporters, and the hundreds of friends she made throughout her years on the Vineyard.

Ms. Kelly and Ms. Smith were often seen at arts and culture events all around the Island, and they had close ties with a number of local businesses and organizations.

“She really participated in a lot,” Ms. Alaimo said. “She was lots of fun. She had a really great sense of humor.”

Ms. Kelly will be remembered not only for her many contributions to the Vineyard community, but for her energy, professionalism, commitment, welcoming of new ideas and new people, and her engaging, warm, and and unflappable nature.

Featherstone board member and former president Jean McCarthy wrote a glowing tribute to her longtime friend:

Francine Kelly is the first lady of Featherstone. I met her 13 years ago when I was invited to join the Featherstone board. A student of John Holladay, I soon became a member of the Featherstone team, which was mostly men in those days, an earnest group of folks who heralded Featherstone as a year-round art center for Islanders and visitors of all ages.

Always with a nod to her predecessor Peggy Pinney, Francine attracted and hired a stable of artists and teachers who became some of the leading artists of the Island. Later additions were musicians, poets, storytellers. Where Featherstone began as a school of visual arts, it grew to include other media, as it does today.

The daughter of an Episcopal minister, Francine preached the Gospel of Yes. Nothing was impossible. In fact, a daring prospect, a challenge, often became a regular offering at Featherstone. Francine nurtured Island artists, including John Holladay, who recently dedicated his Island book to Francine.

Francine was a master of collaboration. She connected with the high school, with Hospice, with Windemere. She encouraged the art camp for children with Lani Carney.

Affiliating with Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Featherstone gave gallery space and time to local teens to display their ceramics, their photography, their oils, and their watercolors.

With good friends Malcolm and Jeanne Campbell, Francine initiated the Art of Chocolate Festival on Columbus Day weekend. Now in its 14th year, it has become the signature event for Featherstone.

As you might imagine, Francine brought out the best in people. Warm, sensitive, and gracious, she encouraged and organized, she nurtured and celebrated the talents and growth of artists young and old.

My words are flavored with affection and admiration for my friend, Francine. You may know that she raised four daughters as a single mother, including twins Ann and Janis. Ann is the current dynamic executive director at Featherstone, who continues to expand upon the early plans and dreams.

Yes, first lady of Featherstone — the title fits. Francine produced and presided. She persuaded and encouraged an extraordinary group of artists and lovers of art to learn and to share and to celebrate and to rejoice in this very special site. Francine Kelly will be missed.

—Jean C. McCarthy

Four-term Featherstone board member

Past board president for three years of Francine’s regime