More than Marine Art: Marblehead Arts Association Promotes Multi-Medium Artistic Inclusivity on the North Shore

By Joey Phoenix

Formed in 1922, the Marblehead Arts Association is one of the oldest Arts Associations in the United States and is still active and thriving on the North Shore today. It’s made up of members who both create and support art in all of its forms, individuals who are passionate about what they do and about what they appreciate, and it shows.

“Our members all think of us as a big family,” says Executive Director Patti Baker, who has been in the role for 3 years, and as an artist member for the past 20. Her mediums include Nantucket Basket Weaving, which she teaches in various sessions throughout the year, and fine art watercolor painting.

Over the last decade, the association has worked tirelessly to bring their gallery’s reputation into the 21st century. Where previously they had spent their time focusing on traditional marine art in well-known mediums, the organization has grown to incorporate a more inclusive and changing framework.

“The move has been purposeful,” says Missy Fisher, President of the Board of Directors and artist member specializing in Jewelry. “We’re even doing some contemporary and non-representational art which is really exciting for us.

“We’re working hard to get away from the reputation we had of being an old fuddy-duddy art place that people don’t want to walk into.”

While there will always be a place for marine art at the association – because to recognize where an organization is going, it’s important to pay homage to where it’s been – the gallery walls also contain illustrious images and creations from working artists who are on the front edge of the cultural landscape.

As a result, the bright gallery rooms are spaces that feel alive, places where both people familiar with the galleries at and brand new to them can come see everything exhibited therein and feel inspired.

Dedicated Beginnings

For the last 80 years the association has called the historic King Hooper Mansion in downtown Marblehead – built in 1728 – their home. When the building was slotted for razing in 1936, the association’s founding members went door to door to try to raise the $250 necessary to save the building. In the final hour, around 1 o’clock in the morning, a donor gave them the $100 they needed and they were able to move in and start refurbishing the space not long after.

“It’s such a unique building that an art association is able to have, we’re one of the few that has something big like this in the North Shore area,” Fisher said.

Over the next few decades, the association grew and expanded its membership and events programming. During this time, the association survived predominately on art sales and membership dues. Then, two fortunate events happened which made everything a little bit easier.

First, the mansion made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, which came with a set of unique benefits. Not only are these benefits educational, allowing curious people to find out more about the mansion and create a sense of local pride around the building, but it also allows the Hooper Mansion to be eligible for grants and special funding.

Second, the association became the recipient of an endowment for the continued maintenance and upkeep of the historic building. The endowment made it possible for the association to stay on the property, which was such a tremendous gift, although there are some restrictions to what the organization can do with the funds from the endowment.

“We can’t change the color of the paint on a whim because that’s an improvement. We can only maintain, but we did just get a new roof, which is pretty exciting,” Fisher said.

“We updated our kitchen last year, which we had to pay for ourselves because it was an improvement,” she continued. “Because of these restrictions, we’re required to get 100% of our operating expenses through donations and memberships and events.”

She also added that while gallery and shop sales also factor in as a revenue source, it’s far less due to the fact that the association has one of the highest payouts to artists who sell their work. “We pay artists 65% of the sale,” she explained.

Another revenue stream for the organization includes event space rentals. Individuals and groups can rent out the downstairs tavern, the upstairs ballroom, and other spaces within the mansion for small, private events.

The Marblehead Arts Association Today

Having worked so diligently to maintain the building itself and to keep the spirit of the organization alive, the Marblehead Arts Association strives to create galleries, events, and programming that will interest artist members, associate members, and all people not yet aware of the association.

With more than 400 artist members, the association has a diverse range of work that comes through. There are four main categories of artists at the association –  fine arts, crafts, photography, and digital media – and the six galleries within the space rotate every six weeks, allowing for the display of 1,200 original works of art each year.

While most of the work exhibited is from artist members and class attendees, every so often the association hosts a show to the public, like in Variations earlier this year which showcased work from non-members all over Essex County and beyond.

The association also has an artisan store featuring artist member work that rotates every three months. “We try to keep the prices [in the store] to $250 and below. It gives people a chance to get really unique handmade things at a reasonable price,” says Baker.

In addition to these artist-centric spaces, the association is also dedicated to providing spaces for associate members who, while they appreciate art or are aspiring artists, aren’t currently working artists.

“You can become a member here and have no artistic ability. You don’t have to be an artist at all. We have a lot of members who just want to be a part of the organization and they love the arts,” Fisher explained.

“We are trying to encourage more memberships of just associate artists, we’re trying to think of creative ways to make them feel welcome as we do for artists members because we don’t want anyone to feel that just because they’re not an artist that they’re any less welcome,” Baker said.

As part of this initiative, the association hosts a series of classes open to all skill levels. These classes tend to have an “and sip” element, i.e. paint and sip, jewelry and sip, etc. which denotes a more casual and open setting for people to learn how to make art and have fun while doing it.

What’s Next for the Association

One of the most important parts of the Association’s success is the dedication of the thirteen member board, made up of artist and non-artist members alike.

“We don’t have a financial obligation for our board members as many do,” Fisher described. “We do expect participation instead.

“It’s very important for an organization like this to have a board like that because it’s strategically driven, asking what we’re going to be able to establish for five years down the road. It’s very intentional.”

In the last few months, the board has established a volunteer events committee responsible for programming which will encourage more non-artists to come into the association and see what it’s all about. In 2019, the Hooper Mansion has played host to jazz nights, a casino night, multiple classes, workshops, and fundraisers.

But the biggest event of the year is yet to come. For the last three years, the association has partnered with the Boston Yacht Club to host a Kentucky Derby viewing and celebration. This year it will be on the weekend of May 4th.

“Sometimes we get confused with the Marblehead Museum or the Marblehead Festival of the Arts, which are both great organizations but very different from us, so we are trying to introduce programming that will make us more distinctive on the North Shore,” Fisher said.

“We want people to be curious about what’s happening inside our building, and to not be afraid to just come in and check us out,” Baker added. “We rely so much on membership and these events to keep us running, and the more people who come through our doors, the better chance we have of continuing our operations and providing opportunities for artists in the future.”


Click here for Marblehead Arts Association’s full listing of classes and events.


Joey Phoenix is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. Follow them on Twitter @jphoenixmedia. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com

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