Building a Museum: Report From Down East

A Maine couple defies the odds -- and helps to build community in the process.
By John Tierney
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The restored facade and new civic space in front of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art.

By John Tierney

If you’ve been following the reports here by Deborah and Jim Fallows in their American Futures series, you know that the small city of Eastport, Maine, a town that has faced hard times in the past, is a place with lots of good things going on. Most recently, we’ve learned from Deb about the positive, “yes-we-can” attitude that has become widespread there, reaching into (and being reinforced by) the language people use. And from Jim, we’ve heard about efforts to build harbor traffic for the deep-water port there and an ambitious, large-scale project to harness the hydro-kinetic power of ocean tides and river currents.

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Now let’s look in on another bold venture in Eastport, this one of much smaller scale and different orientation, but no less important in the way it’s helping to revitalize this coastal community. This is the story of how an art museum -- The Tides Institute & Museum of Art -- got started there in the past decade, and what it’s come to mean in the life of this small community of 1,300 people. 

Hugh French, an Eastport native, and his wife, Kristin McKinlay, were living in Portland, Maine, in 2002 when they decided -- in the great American spirit of mobility -- to move. Where, they weren’t exactly sure.

The former Eastport Savings Bank building before renovation.

But on a visit back to Hugh’s hometown, they saw an old, dilapidated building for sale, the former home of the Eastport Savings Bank, and decided, virtually on the spot, to buy it and create an art museum there.

Laughing at the memory, McKinlay told me: “We went through the building. It was in dire shape, and yet we came out saying to each other, ‘We have to do this.’” Laughing harder, she said, “It was somewhat a matter of putting the cart before the horse.” What she meant was that they hadn’t previously made a conscious decision to move back to Eastport, much less looked for or purchased a home there, but they bought the building anyway, planning to create a museum. Their thinking, I realized as McKinlay explained to me the origin of the Tides Institute, was akin to Ray Kinsella's inspiration in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

Workers removing bank vault from building.

They saw something in that run-down building: hope -- and a future. “We realized there was a need here for the kind of cultural institution that could help revitalize the town,” French said. “We knew that Eastport needed a cultural anchor; that was the genesis of the concept. Of course, we knew it would be hard: the town has a small population, there’s little money here, and there’s no big urban center nearby.” But they went ahead anyway, believing in the project -- and in the town. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t feel Eastport was already moving in a positive direction,” McKinlay said.

They started out, McKinlay told me, by “putting up a website first. We did that even before we moved from Portland to Eastport. We wanted to elicit responses from people up here about what was needed. So, having a website made it useful to gather ideas about collections, research resources, and so on. Also, potential funders were able to look at it.”

They chose the name with deliberation: rejecting Eastport or Passamaquoddy in favor of Tides, thinking it to be less limiting geographically, but still suggestive of the area and the community's aspirations for connection to the world beyond. (“Tides connect everywhere,” French noted.) And they chose Institute because they felt it implied the kind of innovative institution they were hoping to create, with an educational mission and “an open-ended institutional capacity.” French explained, “We didn't want to needlessly box ourselves in.”

Painting by Arthur Cadieux, in collection of Tides Institute.

Thanks to family heritage, French already had a collection of objects on which to build -- paintings, historical photos, oral histories, and the like -- much of this, cultural material about the sardine canneries that once dominated the economic life of Eastport. But they knew that building a museum meant they’d have to add substantially to their collection.

Helping to make that happen was the French family name, well known in town. McKinlay explained: “It’s been crucial to our success to have a known quantity in town doing this. Previously, there wasn’t an institution here that people knew and trusted, so people who had artwork, documents, or other valuable things to donate sent their items elsewhere – to other museums around the state or beyond, to the archives of their alma maters, etc. But because people knew Hugh, knew the Frenches, they were willing to give us their items of value. So, things started coming in.”

Main Room in the Tides Institute and Museum of Art

The museum’s collections cover different time periods and places, but are regional in many respects. Included among the kinds of items in the permanent collection are Native-American basketry, hand-painted ceramics, boat models, portraits of ships, and photographs from the sardine canneries. The total museum space is allocated roughly evenly between the permanent collection and special exhibits.

Native-American basket in collection.

Once their extensive reconstruction of the building was completed, French and McKinlay started doing exhibits right away. That helped to build the collection, too. “People would come in to see exhibits and say ‘Oh, I have something you might want to add to your collection.’”

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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