March 20, 2017

How a small town in Maine helped to fuel its own cultural revival

Entwined in its community, the Tides Institute & Museum of Art is rebuilding this border town's cultural legacy

Nearly completed large-scale installation, "Undertow," at TIMA’s North Church, by artist, Anna Hepler. Photo courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art


Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on, and here, on The Renewal Project.

Hugh French is the Director of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art, or TIMA. Founded in 2002, this nonprofit has helped bring about physical and cultural renewal in the small village of Eastport, Maine, right along the U.S.-Canada border.

Meet Hugh and follow TIMA on Facebook.

This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your community:

TIMA is located on Moose Island, off the coast of Maine and on the U.S.-Canada border. The organization serves the town of Eastport and the surrounding region in both U.S. and Canada. Eastport has lost much of its population in the last century and is undergoing great transitions and progress over the past 30 years as it reinvents itself for the 21st century. It has a mix of residents that reflect the town’s activities, from fisheries to a shipping port. It also has artists, small shop and gallery owners, retirees, and telecommuters.

What inspired you to do this work?

In 2002, there was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of Eastport’s revival and to make a substantial, long-term impact and difference. There was a key abandoned downtown historic building that was threatened with destruction and TIMA decided that by taking on this building, we could make a statement about what is possible in a small town like Eastport. No one thought that it could be brought back from the brink or, if it could, that we had the capacity to do it. We now have six key historic buildings that we are bringing back and repurposing for other uses.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

In a town as small as Eastport, one has to play multiple roles and play as many angles as possible. TIMA believes that by weaving together a number of interests, initiatives, and partners that we can achieve a critical mass, synergy, capacity, and connectedness that otherwise would not be possible. TIMA’s activities reflect this:

  • TIMA is rebuilding the region’s cultural legacy that was close to being lost. We’re doing this by developing the first significant, wide ranging cultural collections that reflect this region—from art to architecture to history.
  • TIMA is rescuing, preserving and repurposing six key historic buildings.

  • Five years ago, TIMA established the first cultural guide (Artsipelago,, both in print and online), to the region that includes an annual artist studio tour.

  • TIMA is completing the first bicycle and pedestrian map and guide for Eastport and the surrounding region.

  • TIMA founded a new community celebration, The Great New Year’s Eve Sardine & Maple Leaf Drop, a decade ago that consistently attracts national attention and has made Eastport’s downtown come alive.

  • Six years ago, TIMA developed a branding initiative for Eastport called “Eastport: On the Creative Edge” that includes a brochure, playing cards, and an online presence.

  • TIMA is sponsoring the first substantial architectural study (seven years in the making) of Eastport that will result next year in a significant publication, exhibition, and online resources.

  • TIMA is administering for Eastport’s government two concurrent CDBG downtown facade improvement programs that involve 12 buildings in Eastport’s downtown National Register Historic District. This work is pro bono.

  • TIMA commissioned the development of a hand-drawn streetscape map of the district and has followed this up with a commission to develop a large scale bird’s eye view and parish map of Eastport.

  • TIMA is well into the development of an online Quality of Place initiative that links the art, architecture, and history of Eastport and the region.

  • Five years ago, TIMA established an international artist residency program that attracts artists from across the U.S. and increasing abroad. Artists work in TIMA’s downtown StudioWorks facility and offer community and school workshops.

  • TIMA is transforming an abandoned 1819 North Church building into a project space. The space will add new capacity to Eastport and the region with a multi-use main space that has the region’s finest acoustics and a volume that will allow for large scale art and multi-media installations.

  • TIMA has worked with governments in Maine and Canada to establish a Maine-New Brunswick Cultural Agreement and Task Force to foster greater cultural awareness and exchange between the state and province.

What do you love about your community?

Eastport has a lot going on for a small town. There is an active arts and cultural scene. There is a burgeoning shipping port and fishing industry. Eastport is a compact and very walkable town. There are whale sightings from the waterfront downtown in the summer. Eastport has the best Fourth of July celebration in Maine, a tradition that goes back more than a century and a half. Neighboring Canada adds to the offerings of Eastport whether it be listening to CBC radio or differing perspectives from Canada. So do the Passamaquoddy people who have been here for 12,000 years and who have their own perspectives and traditions that are being preserved and reinvented.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

Things that you might not think possible in a small town like Eastport can be possible. You have to think realistically, yes, but you also have to think differently and be willing to go out and do it.

What leader or leaders inspired you?

We like to think of individuals who inspire us by what they do and how they impact the world around them. A lot of people from a range of work inspire us. Here are two: Amos Paul Kennedy, an African American computer programmer turned letterpress printer, who travels the country giving inspiring workshops on letterpress printing and the visually compelling poster messages that he creates using his press. And Sue Clifford, founder and director of Common Ground in England, who tirelessly advocated for the importance of the distinctiveness of place and spread this message throughout rural England while creating a range of imaginative advocacy tools and products in the process.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.