Featherstone’s ‘Big’ opening featured new gallery space and plenty of visitors

The new Francine Kelly Gallery at Featherstone Center for the Arts. —David Welch

About 500 people turned out last Friday night for the “Big” show, which opened the Francine Kelly Gallery at Featherstone Center for the Arts’s Art Barn for the first time. The building is the culmination of years of planning and an ongoing capital campaign. The gallery was named in honor of Francine Kelly, who served as executive director of Featherstone from 2003 to 2010. Her daughter, Ann Smith, took over after she retired, but Ms. Kelly continued to be active at Featherstone until shortly before her death in January at the age of 77. “This is now the absolute best gallery space on Martha’s Vineyard,” says artist Genevieve Jacobs. “It’s a wonderful tribute to Francine Kelly, whose vision is finally realized. Her daughter Ann has really carried the torch.”

The “Big” theme of the inaugural show takes advantage of the fact that more and bigger works of art can be displayed here than in the older Virginia Weston Besse Gallery, which is part of an old house with low ceilings and relatively small rooms. The new gallery has big barn doors, board-and-batten siding, and a broad wraparound deck opening onto the lawns. Its design evokes Featherstone’s past as a horse farm without smelling like manure, as the previous building did even after the horses moved out and photography equipment moved in. Inside, the new gallery is spacious and bright, all the way down to the white pickled floors. The ceiling soars up to the roof, with clerestory windows supplementing the light from an array of pendants and spotlights hanging over the movable walls.

More than 50 Island artists contributed to the “Big” show, including Nancy Shaw Cramer. “It’s full of light; it’s a very versatile and congenial space,” she says. Speaking of light, she mentioned that local artists Leslie Baker and Julia Mitchell organized a fundraiser earlier this summer. About 70 Island artists donated work to that two-day show, which raised the money that paid for the gallery’s lighting. “So the artists in the show were the ones that brought the light,” she says.

The building also includes an open-plan office with a reception desk, a conference room and library designed to comfortably seat 20, and studio classrooms. The drawing and painting studios are 26 feet square each, with windows on three sides and an attached deck joining the two studios. Finally, there’s a new teaching kitchen for cooking classes. The new pottery studio, which opened in early July, includes separate studios for adults and children, plus a kiln and glazing room.

Bill Potter of Squash Meadow Construction helped the staff and building committee design the pottery studio as well as the Art Barn, using their 3D modeling software to help the committee develop their design. “The fun and inspiring part had to do with being creative and designing around their needs,” Mr. Potter says. The challenging part was working within a tight timeframe and budget. The permitting process took as much time as the actual construction did — about six months. Squash Meadow used a combination of construction techniques in the building. “It’s a good example of integrating onsite construction with off-site construction,” Mr. Potter says.

The third and final phase of the master plan is renovation of the existing buildings. The farmhouse that now houses offices, a gallery, and some classroom space will be devoted to photography, video, and computers. The old pottery studio will become a fiber arts barn for sewing, weaving, knitting, and more. Printmaking will be upstairs in the current “Studio” building, and the lower floor will continue to be used for preschool programs. The Pebble, built in 2003, will carry on its function as a community space for various groups.

“We’re building what we hope will be a premiere year-round art center for Martha’s Vineyard,” says Ms. Smith. In 2011, Mashek MacLean Architects created a master plan for the Featherstone campus, reflecting artists’ priorities, namely that they needed better studio space and more of it. The capital campaign started in 2012, as soon as the master plan was completed, with a goal of $6 million; $4 million of that for building and another $2 million for maintenance. The campaign leaped forward last year when Featherstone received $2.8 million gift from an anonymous donor, with $1 million earmarked for the Art Barn, allowing construction to move forward faster than originally planned, shortly after the opening of the new pottery studio in July this year.

Construction is not entirely finished. The paint was barely dry on the walls when the show was hung last week, and the landscaping won’t be finished this season. Still, the gallery is open, and the classroom studios will soon be ready to use as well.

Ms. Smith was somewhat surprised at the number of people who came to the opening of the new gallery, and to see the campus taking on its new shape. They included artists, friends, students, teachers, and visitors. “It’s the whole community,” she said.