Turning Vineyard Haven into Art Haven

First Fridays are a step toward developing the community’s personality.

Vineyard Haven has long been known as the entryway to Martha’s Vineyard — a place to land on the ferry and depart the Island for “America.”

There are a group of like-minded individuals who are trying to change that perception. “We want people to go to Vineyard Haven,” Phil Wallis, who represents the Vineyard Haven Cultural Council, told The Times. “Rather than a pass-through, it’s a go-to.”

It will take time and building relationships, something Wallis is expert at, to create the full vision he has for the community. Talk to Wallis for a few minutes, and he’s bound to tell you about Art Haven, his future vision for the waterfront, incorporating the working waterfront that’s there — Black Dog, Gannon & Benjamin, Packer, and Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard — with the commerce and culture of the arts.

“Because Vineyard Haven has the potential to evolve into a place of commerce and culture, several of us have been working to create this element, this facet of Vineyard Haven’s personality that could be core to its future, and we’re calling that Art Haven. Art Haven is the placemaking of VIneyard Haven into a creative economy that supports artisans, craft makers of the Island, so they have infrastructure to grow their and our culture,” Wallis said. “Vineyard Haven has this potential to grow and evolve in personality. I’m using personality because each town on the Vineyard does have its own personality, its own culture, and its own theme. Vineyard Haven doesn’t have that, and is looking to establish one.”

One important step in that process is the Vineyard Haven Business Association’s First Fridays. Now in its sixth year, First Fridays are a mix of music, food, arts, crafts, and a bonfire on the beach at Owen Park. When they started, Main Street would be closed down, but to encourage more people to visit the restaurants and shops in the village, First Fridays has focused this year on having the bulk of its artisans, musicians, and food at Owen Park.

First Fridays start in June and end in October.

Andy Herr organizes the music for the events and always has an action-packed lineup of Island musicians.

One recurring event is the Silent Disco. If you’re unfamiliar, individuals wear headsets and can hear the music they’re listening to, but the people trying to sleep on Upper Main, William Street, and throughout the village cannot hear it. It makes for a hilarious image of young people dancing to seemingly nothing.

“It was a way we could keep going and keep partying after 9 o’clock … It’s completely silent,” Herr said. Well maybe not completely silent. “There’s giggling, and out-of-tune singing, and foot stomping, which is acoustically much quieter than a DJ,” he said. “There are tons and tons of teens and young adults who can’t go to clubs and bars, and they get to listen to music and hang out.”

Throughout the event you can browse the artists and craftspeople who will be set up and showing off their work, organized by Althea Freeman-Miller.

“It’s definitely been growing,” Freeman-Miller said. “We have more attention from the general public coming than we ever have.”

Painters, potters, and other artists show off their work and offer some of it for sale.

“I think it’s really become such a Vineyard Haven community event. A lot of people come and do it because they love Vineyard Haven and want to support the event,” Freeman-Miller said. “It’s been a really good show for new artists who haven’t done an event before.”

The Tisbury Fire Department — after cooking up burgers and hot dogs for sale — typically lights and manages a bonfire on the beach as well. There are other food options from food truck vendors, including Goldie’s Rotisserie and El Gato Grande.

Wallis is hoping that as First Fridays grow in popularity, they will become part of what draws people back to Vineyard Haven — as he said earlier, seeing the town as a place to go, rather than just a pass-through.

“People love a great gathering,” Wallis said. “We want to build up partnerships with key businesses and critical players. It hasn’t been a mantra, and what we’re trying to create is a mantra.”

And getting back to Art Haven, Freeman-Miller as an artist, is thrilled with that vision. “I’ve always wanted to make Vineyard Haven the art town. Phil and I were really vibed on that. He’s an amazing visionary,” she said. “I grew up on the Island, and went to Vermont after high school. We have the best art markets on the Island, but I wanted something that was also celebrating our community of artists and music — giving it a farmers market feel. That’s what I want for First Fridays. It’s really come together better than I imagined. It’s a great way for artists to come together.”