Art and history

Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District celebrates the artistic culture of the town.


Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District (VHHCD) is far more than the sum of its parts. Founded in 2014, it is one of the biggest cultural districts in Massachusetts, and the only one with a harbor, which includes two classic wooden shipbuilders and a working waterfront. However, the district expands beyond the Vineyard Haven shore to include Main Street, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, the Katharine Cornell Theater, the Vineyard Haven library, Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and numerous historic buildings.

VHHCD’s mission is to promote and celebrate the authentic artisan culture of the historic harbor and town. By creating community events and expanding cultural opportunities, the Cultural District helps support a vibrant space for local citizens, artists, and tradespeople to share the town’s historic and contemporary passions with both residents and visitors.

Phil Wallis, director of Vineyard Lands for our Community and VHHCD chairman, explains, “This program of cultural districts across the commonwealth of Massachusetts was a function of the state with towns, which could designate a nonprofit to be its entity to do the cultural district, and the VHHCD has been a town of Tisbury program run by volunteers.”

The initial group included Vineyard Haven Public Library director Amy Ryan, Martha’s Vineyard Film Society founder and executive director Richard Paradise, Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo, and Featherstone Center for the Arts executive director Ann Smith.

The board of directors currently consists of Wallis; Althea Freeman-Miller, printmaker and owner of Althea Designs, as president; cut-paper artist Taylor Stone as clerk and secretary; jewelry designer Elysha Roberts as treasurer; sculptor and gallery manager Wil Sideman; owner of the Martha’s Vineyard Made boutique Rachel Baumrin; and musician Andy Herr.

In collaboration with the Vineyard Haven Business Association (VHBA), perhaps VHHCD’s signature event has been the wildly popular First Fridays, which began in 2016. This summer, they occurred in Owen Park, where hundreds of people gathered to enjoy some 30 artists and vendors with their creative wares, along with music and artmaking experiences, food trucks, and a silent disco.

This summer, there was also a First Friday Gallery Stroll, with a map of the 13 galleries and studios that were open from 4 to 7 pm. There were holiday events, too, in concert with the business association, with one for Halloween and four additional celebrations that built upon the past events around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

In 2021, VHHCD and VHBA furthered their efforts on commerce and culture, developing Visit Vineyard Haven, aimed at stimulating, as the website states, “the growth of arts, culture, small businesses, and waterfront culture for residents and visitors by facilitating year-round art, cultural, and community events, buying local, wayfinding, and placemaking initiatives.”

“It does not try to distinguish between the Business Association and Cultural District purposely, because we are mutually reinforcing the better cultural and community event and activities in the town, which will beget more people coming, which will beget more restaurants and retail shops wanting to be open later,” Wallis says about Visit Vineyard Haven. “We’re trying to create an economy to reinforce the green and blue economy here. We have this trifecta of Green, Blue, and Creative.”

VHHCD is currently in the process of becoming a nonprofit that can be its own fiscal agent so it can receive state grants, and seek other grants that will help the town with some of its quality-of-life priorities of culture and beautification. There has been discussion on increasing the public art in town, such as having local artists create Main Street banners, and paint murals on buildings and perhaps Eversource transformers. “We are trying to encourage walkability in town and for people to explore, appreciate, and slow down and learn,” Stone says.

The board shared plans about wayfinding and public art at their monthly meeting last Thursday, soliciting feedback, personal experiences, and thoughts from the audience. In addition to exciting new ideas, there was a far-ranging conversation about regulations, the pros and cons of particular materials and methods for public murals, the benefits of prototyping, and the many considerations that need to be thought through when determining specific locations. Steve Zablotny of Z Studios, which did a wayfinding and signage study for the town of Tisbury, said, “We looked for key locations for where placemaking could happen, and the signage that might be best suited, and the type of signage and messaging that should be there. It can’t be arbitrarily located. If it’s misplaced, or in a location that may not warrant the visitation it deserves, or draws a crowd to the wrong place, then it’s fighting itself. The ramifications go beyond the object you are thinking about.”

With ideas for the near and far future, what is clear about the VHHCD is, as Wallis says, “We’re emerging; we’re in our next chapter.”

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