Museum as muse

New book highlights artworks inspired by a building.


It is fitting that the stately white clapboard building that is home to the Martha’s VIneyard Museum has a storied history. The U.S. government chose the site overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor to build a lighthouse in 1855, which was decommissioned in 1859. At the end of the 19th century, it was converted into a marine hospital, where ailing and injured mariners were cared for until 1952. Seven years later, the St. Pierre School of Sport, a summer camp, moved in, and the sounds of children at play cascaded down the hill until the camp closed in 2007.

Over the decades, upkeep on the building had been neglected, and by the time the museum sought to purchase it, it needed a major restoration. In her recently published book, “Artistic Visions: Martha’s Vineyard Museum as Muse,” Abby Remer writes, “Where others might have only seen a ramshackle old edifice on the hill, the museum saw possibility.”

While the museum was seeing possibility, a number of artists were finding inspiration, and reimagined the building as part of their creative dialogue.

“Why did so many artists find the crumbling Marine Hospital such a source of inspiration more than 100 years after it first sparkled new on the bluff?” Remer asks in her visually stunning book. Projects by artists who painted, photographed, and created installations and performance pieces within the building — and projected images onto it — are highlighted throughout the book. “Through the eyes of the artists who took the building as their subject during the months and years before it was renovated — and some after — we discover new ways to see the building’s intriguing history and the visible remnants of its eras gone by,” writes Remer.

The artists who found a muse in the museum that are included in the book are photographers Bob Avakian, Jean Schnell, Christine Scott Snyder, Alison Shaw, Denys Wortman, and Dena Porter; painter Heather Neill, an installation by artist Cindy Kane, video projections by Jon Baer, as well as dancers from the Yard who performed in building prior to its renovation.

Arranged in sections by artist and project, book designer Heather Reinert chose a 8- by 10-inch trim size, which allows the photographs of the pieces to stand out. Along with Remer’s insightful commentary, which includes snippets from interviews with the artists, the book is a conversation piece, and the ideal coffee table fixture for Island homes.

In a recent exchange, Remer said, “The germ of the idea came about in 2018, during my weekly coffee dates with Denys Wortman, who was intimately involved in helping the museum transition from Edgartown to the Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven. Sharing a great affinity for art, Denys enjoyed showing me images by some of the fabulous artists who had used the pre-renovated building as inspiration for their impressive work. We lit upon the idea of developing an art book, and went to then-executive director Phil Wallis, who loved the project. It changed shape and scope over the years into its current focus of the museum as muse.”

Photographer Bob Avakian told Remer “he steadfastly believes that buildings hold secrets.” About his eerie picture of the building’s exterior, Remer writes, “Its seemingly internal glow reveals all the Marine Hospital’s beautiful defects in exacting detail, endowing it with a melancholy soul.”

In 2012, Christine Scott Snyder posed a woman costumed in period outfits in different rooms, and created a series of photographs titled “A Girl Named Rose.” Remer quotes Snyder as saying “The original Marine Hospital had cavernous rooms and a lingering sense of history. I was inspired by the muted colors, the cracking plaster, the dust and dilapidation. “

Jon Baer projected images and 3D video mapping on the building’s façade in 2016 and again in 2021. “He fused the real building with the unreality of art,” writes Remer.

In 2016, Cindy Kane painted the heads of extinct birds on pillows and placed them on empty beds that were lined up in rows, and had the type of bird and date of extinction stenciled onto a sheet. “I wanted to utilize the building as a kind of mortuary or a place that could hold the feeling that the environment is unwell,” Kane told Remer.

Photographers Alison Shaw, Denys Wortman, and Jean Schnell found the textural details of the building visually fascinating, while Dena Porter found abstractions in the reflections of the windows. “There’s one particular window in the 1895 building that I could shoot every day,” she told Remer.

On Sunday, July 16, at 4 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Abby Remer will speak with Bob Avakian, Cindy Kane, Dena Porter, Jean Schnell, Alison Shaw, Christine Scott Snyder, and Denys Wortman about “Artistic Visions: Martha’s Vineyard Museum as Muse.” Advance tickets are available at Copies are for sale at the Museum bookstore or by contacting