Beyond books: The Edgartown library is a destination for art lovers too

The recently constructed library now displays a world-class art collection.

The guidebook for the art collection at Edgartown Library.

A museum-worthy selection of art has been in the possession of the Edgartown library since the 1930s. Now, with the library’s move to bigger digs, the impressive collection, a bequest by a collector, is enjoying the prominence of place that it deserves.

When the Edgartown Public Library moved from its century-old former home on North Water Street to the spacious new modern building on Edgartown Road, one of the things that moved along with the library was a historic collection of artwork that had previously been hung randomly on the walls of the much smaller venue.

Now, thanks to the work of library director Lisa Horton Sherman, reference librarian (and historian) Nis Kildegaard, and professional art installer David Hannon, the collection has not only been curated, but properly displayed, and even catalogued in a small booklet available at the front desk.

“This is one of the art treasures of the Island,” says Mr. Kildegaard. “We’ve had it since 1933, but there was never any way to display it properly to full advantage. Now that we have this beautiful new library, we can give it its due.”

Among the artists included in the collection are some whose work hangs variously in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the Whitney, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Canada’s National Gallery.

The collection was donated to the town of Edgartown by Vineyard native and avid art collector Charles Simpson. The highly successful industrialist, who made his fortune through his association with the National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco), left his beloved collection of three dozen paintings and scores of etchings to the town with the stipulation that it be hung in public.

Not many visitors to the old library were aware of the provenance of the paintings, or even of the importance of the work. “Back in the day, we would get somebody every two or three months who would come up to the circulation desk and ask, ‘Do you realize what you have on the walls here?’” says Mr. Kildegaard. “Now the whole community can enjoy this collection.”

In 2008 the library suffered a furnace malfunction that filled the entire building with petroleum mist, and caused the institution to close its doors for six months. One positive result of the incident was that the insurance settlement allowed for conservation of the art. “The entire collection was cleaned for what was probably the first time,” says Mr. Kildegaard. “We didn’t realize how dirty the paintings were until they came back restored. One we thought was an evening scene turned out to be a daytime scene.”

At the time of the library’s relocation in 2016, David Hannon of Hannon Fine Arts Services stepped forward and offered his help for what Mr. Kildegaard refers to as a “museum-quality installation.” Mr. Hannon has 25 years of experience hanging art. While living in Boston, he had his own business as a museum and gallery installer. Since moving to the Vineyard about three years ago he has helped many individuals as a consultant, curator, and installer of private collections.

Mr. Hannon explains the process: “What I’m looking for is what goes well together. We want friendly paintings paired. We don’t want them clashing. I look at the dimensions of the space and the aesthetics of each room, and aim for continuity and flow.”

Some of the most impressive of the works enjoy featured placement. Three landscapes by Charles Harold Davis, known as a master of cloud painting, hang behind the main desk on the first floor. The work of Mr. Davis, founder of the Mystic Art Association, has been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The artist, a favorite of Mr. Simpson, was recently honored with a major retrospective at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn.

Along the stairwell, Mr. Hannon has displayed a series of landscapes and seascapes. Among these are a beautiful impressionist seascape by Paul Dougherty, whose work can be found at just about every major American museum, including the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, among others.

Two winter scenes are paired along one wall of the staircase as well. One, titled “Snow Mantled Highway,” is by John Fabian Carlson, a specialist in winter scenes and author of the popular “Elementary Principles of Landscape Paintings.”

Behind the upstairs reference desk, one will find an interesting grouping of marine art including two watercolors of the Charles W. Morgan, the last of the American whaling fleet, which was recently restored by Mystic Seaport, and an antique marine barometer/clock that chimes on the hour to indicate the nautical watches of the day.

Representing the Vineyard artist community is Gilberta Daniels Goodwin, an early member of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association. Two of her lovely Edgartown Harbor watercolors can be found hanging in the upstairs corner conference room.

The above-mentioned are just a selection of the many striking works on view. “Mr. Simpson’s collection represents a group of important New England artists,” says Mr. Kildegaard. “He collected regional work, mostly landscapes.” A couple of masterful still lifes in elaborate frames can also be found on the second floor.

The Simpson collection also includes a large selection of works on paper — lithographs, etchings, and drawings by well-known artists. “Some are industrial. Some are rural,” says Mr. Kildegaard. “Only a fraction of those are on display in the study rooms and the conference rooms. These represent sort of a counterpart to the paintings. There are a lot of architectural works that show his [Simpson’s] interest in industrial and urban scenes.” The remainder of the works are stored for future rotation.

Mr. Kildegaard has compiled a booklet for patrons to use as a self-guided tour of the collection. It features full-color prints of many of the pieces, and information about the artists. This marvelous sampling of the work of some of the area’s finest artists justifies a visit to the library in and of itself.

“Mr. Simpson amassed a wonderful collection of important New England artists in his lifetime, and with the construction of the new library, the work is finally able to shine,” says Mr. Kildegaard. “For us, it’s a show of continuity from the old to the new. Now we have the work up in a permanent way.”