One company, two owners, and three galleries add up to a Martha’s Vineyard business long at the forefront of the Island’s fine arts scene. The galleries are the Granary, the Field, and North Water,; the owners are Sheila and Chris Morse; and all three galleries function under the umbrella of Morse Arts, Inc.
“The three galleries are structured under one business, with a director at each location,” Chris Morse says. “I think of it as if I own three fishing boats, each with a great captain with wonderful, varied bait. The three managers and my wife and I work as a team, and know what’s going on in the big picture of the collective businesses.”
Sheila, also the owner and broker of Island Real Estate, says on her website, “When not in the office, I support my husband in our other Island businesses.” Chris is at the helm of the popular galleries full-time, and he’s been doing it for 23 years.
Buying the Granary in 1996 was a big risk for a young couple, but Chris already knew a lot about running a gallery. As a summer kid, Chris started out as a student working part-time at the Granary, manning events, and right from the beginning coming in early and staying late. He studied business administration while taking a lot of art classes at Menlo College, continuing to work at the Granary during vacations. Chris was taken in by the shop’s eclectic mix, and enjoyed talking with the patrons and the artists. Previous owners Bruce Blackwell and Brandon White noted Chris’ competence and enthusiasm, and asked him to manage the gallery while he was still in college. The owners eventually decided to sell, not imagining Sheila and Chris would be able to buy the place. But Chris felt he understood its potential. He and Sheila pulled it together, made an offer, and as Chris says, “We took the plunge.”
All three galleries handle wall art, home goods, and objets d’art, under the theory that the variety softens the atmosphere, making for a more congenial homelike setting, different from standard art galleries. By far the biggest space, the Granary offers the most variety, with antiques and sculpture thrown into the mix. They handle works by nationally known and popular locals, including a substantial offering of photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt and a secondary market of work by painter Thomas Hart Benton.
David Wallis, director of the Granary says, “Following Chris’ lead, we happily foster our relationships with our clients, our artists, and colleagues. The trickiest thing with such an eclectic mix of art on the walls and in the space is to keep things fresh. We have more inventory than we can possibly show at one time, and this helps to keep things lively, providing variety for the patrons and fair showing for the artists.”
With the Granary doing well, the Morses bought Edgartown’s former Gardner Colby Gallery in 2007. The thinking was the new gallery, now named North Water, would be an opportunity to offer down-Island clients similar quality as West Tisbury’s Granary. By opening a second location in a different town, it helped to respond to the geographic peculiarities and self-imposed limitations of most Islanders, who tend to stay within their own area of the island. Strange but true.
The North Water space is a storefront. Along with paintings, it features blown glass, wearable art, and ceramics. Chris’ sister, Robin Nagle, the director, says, “The Granary and the Field are destinations, whereas we are more centrally located in downtown Edgartown. Because of our location, we are immersed in the Edgartown community, and receive a variety of different visitors, including day-trippers and summer residents.”
In 2002, the Field Gallery in West Tisbury came up for sale. Located across from Alley’s General Store, the Field has a gallery building, a large sculpture garden, and a long history of hosting local artists for classes and exhibits. Chris purchased the gallery as much to expand the Morse Arts business as to help keep the artistic nature of this West Tisbury location.
The Field is a location hard to drive by without wanting to stop and explore, given the large, whimsical sculptures by Thomas Maley, Lew French, and others visible from State Road. “We joke that the Field Gallery has the smallest space, least amount of storage, highest ceilings, and largest paintings,” says Field director Jennifer Pillsworth. “Chris and Sheila are great about recognizing accomplishments, and it’s not always just about sales. The three of us have been with the company a long time, and frankly, we’re all here to stay.”
And therein lies the secret to Morse Arts. Chris and Sheila dislike using words like inventory, markup, and sales, preferring to think about what matters most — the long-term relationships they’ve developed with artists, employees, and patrons over the years.