The Tides Institute as a vehicle of preservation and change

The catalyst of re-envisioning Eastport is the Tides Institute and Museum of Art, founded in 2002 by director Hugh French. Its mission has been in acquiring and presenting wide-ranging collections of artworks and historical documents reflecting the coastal region, as well as educational and preservation efforts that include eight significant buildings in the town – four of them in the downtown district – and guest artists residencies each summer.

The leadership is rounded out by French’s wife, Kristin McKinlay, who is director of exhibitions and the StudioWorks residency program, and by Jennifer Dolanski, Artsipelago/program specialist, plus eight trustees, only one of them living in Eastport. The others reside in places like Boston and New York City.

There are also concerts in its 1818 church that housed the Free Will Baptists, plus other events at its 1828/1829 Seaman’s Church, which housed the Congregationalists.

Oh, yes, every New Year’s Eve there’s the maple-leaf drop at 11 pm Eastern – midnight for our Canadian neighbors – followed by the giant sardine an hour later. Both the maple leaf and sardine were commissioned creations.

I suppose TIMA was inspired in part by the Island Institute, founded in 1983 to help Maine islands from Portland to Acadia tackle pressing environmental and socio-economic issues. The Rockland-based organization’s impressive publications include the annual magazine, Island Journal, as well as data analyses to guide public policy. Its focus is on sustainable livelihoods and communities in changing times that include rising sea levels, bringing together marginalized communities, and economic survival.

The heart of the enterprise is in a former bank on Water Street downtown.

In contrast, for now, TIMA’s focus seems to be more on art and architecture, principally – especially the small downtown on the National Register of Historic Places.

In essence, it’s building a future rooted in the past but not stuck there. It’s really the way every art moves, too, no matter how revolutionary some of the leaps may seem.

Renovation of the former Masonic lodge downtown is designed to house additional exhibition space and perhaps mixed use upstairs.

I do have to wonder whether TIMA has taken on too much. The restorations appear to have stalled, perhaps before Covid set in, and both of the churches need significant repair, inside and out. The institute has, all the same, helped distinguish Eastport as a fine arts center in a visually stimulating setting in Maine, an identity that may attract new residents in a time of national population change.

Frankly, it was one of the things that lured me here, as well as my wife and elder daughter.

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