Art Market

How Martha’s Vineyard Became a Thriving Hub for Black Artists and Galleries

Isis Davis-Marks
Aug 26, 2021 9:57PM

Exterior view of Center of Knowhere, Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, 2021. Courtesy of Knowhere Art Gallery.

Rain Spann, Prism I, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Knowhere Art Gallery.

Martha’s Vineyard—an island south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, known for its sandy beaches, quaint cottages, and lush, green foliage—has long been a refuge for African Americans. In the 19th century, Black indentured servants, runaway slaves, and whalers migrated to the neighborhood of Oak Bluffs to participate in the booming whaling industry. As the demand for whale products slowed, however, the location eventually transformed into a vacation destination for wealthy African Americans, who would stay at the island’s cottages and inns.

“Shearer Cottage is a historic cottage that, back in the 1920s and ’30s, many affluent African Americans would come up and stay in,” said Vineyard resident and gallery owner Valerie Francis. “There were also Black whaling captains, so we were not always just in the service industry. We were actually putting our lives on the line going out to sea fishing.”

Portrait of Ralph H. Groce III and Valerie Francis. Courtesy of Harte International Galleries and Valerie Francis.


These days, Martha’s Vineyard is one of the most sought-after holiday getaways in the U.S. According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times, the population swells from 17,000 to over 100,000 in the summertime. Among the vacation rush have been prominent Black figures from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to Henry Louis Gates Jr. to Barack Obama. With its growing popularity, the island has also become an incubator for arts and culture, and for a burgeoning network of Black gallerists and artists.

Francis runs one such space called Knowhere Art Gallery, which opened its doors in July 2019 in the historically Black neighborhood of Oak Bluffs. Francis—who used to vacation in Martha’s Vineyard as a child with her great-uncle and -aunt—and her husband Ralph H. Groce III wanted to create a space for locals to exchange ideas and appreciate art.

Installation view of “Collide & Scope” at Knowhere Art Gallery, Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, 2021. Photo by Craig Miner. Courtesy of Knowhere Art Gallery.

“We want this to be more than just a gallery,” said Francis in a recent interview with the Martha’s Vineyard Times. “We believe art tells a story. The gallery is here to be informative and provoke thought about what’s happening in the world. We want people to walk away with more than the experience of seeing something pretty, but also being informed. We’re looking to represent artists who convey a story of some kind.”

Francis and Groce have actualized their vision by hosting a variety of shows in their space, many of which highlight artists from the island and the surrounding area. For the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, they partnered with the Boston-based nonprofit Artists For Humanity, which provides local teenagers with creative resources and mentorship opportunities, to host a youth-centered show.

Zahyr Lauren, N. M. F. Twinset, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Knowhere Art Gallery.

The gallery also recently opened a second location, Center of Knowhere, whose inaugural group exhibition, “Embodied: Black Women of Print,” used portraiture, relief prints, lithography, and other media to examine colonialism, capitalism, and the transatlantic slave trade. Another show, “Collide & Scope,” a seven-person exhibition co-curated by Sadaf Padder and Francis that took place this summer, focused on the relationships that artists have with their environment. Among the artists included were Anina Major, Lerone Wilson, and Zahyr Lauren.

“I’m an island girl so I have a connection with Martha’s Vineyard,” said Major. Hailing from the Bahamas, her intricately woven ceramic works seek to unpack the feeling of displacement and reflect tropical ecologies. “There are little things about the way you view, live, and appreciate when you live on an island.”

Anina Major, Yellow Burst Loci, 2019–21. Courtesy of the artist and Knowhere Art Gallery.

Anina Major, Dark Burst Loci, 2019–21. Courtesy of the artist and Knowhere Art Gallery.

Though many of Knowhere’s shows feature artists of color, Francis maintains that she wants the space to be inclusive for everyone. “As someone who is African American and proud, I also want to be clear that at the end of the day, I’m about people,” said Francis. “One of the things that is important about this platform is that it is inclusive.”

Ann Smith shares a similar sentiment. She is the executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts, a Black woman–led nonprofit arts center that often features artists of color and exhibitions celebrating artists and artistic disciplines that have been historically excluded.

“I want our audience and community and participants and visitors to be of every hue,” said Smith. “I’m happy to say that that’s the case in terms of our staff, our teachers, and our audience. I want it to be a place where everyone feels welcome.”

Jaleeca Yancy, Harmony of Many Parts, 8, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Knowhere Art Gallery.

Smith is also working to foster this culture of creativity by curating exhibitions that promote diversity. One of Featherstone’s current shows, “From Caldecott to Coretta Scott: Award Winning Black Illustrators,” focuses on the history of Black characters in illustrated children’s books. The exhibition includes pictures from iconic works like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (1962), which was one of the first mainstream illustrated books with a Black protagonist. Other notable artists in the show include Jerry Pinkney (who illustrated books including The Little Red Hen, 2006), Ekua Holmes (who illustrated Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, 2017), and Eric Velasquez (who illustrated Looking for Bongo, 2016).

“We have 177 pieces in the show,” Smith said. “Several people have asked if the show will tour, and whether they could take it to their libraries or foundations because these illustrators have never shown all together in one place with this kind of quantity before. These are books that everybody recognizes and knows from their childhood.”

Tana Torrent, Sunrise, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Knowhere Art Gallery.

As summer winds down and many exhibitions close with the end of peak visitor season, many of the island’s artists and gallerists are adapting and finding ways to continue to display art. “I often still have work, even though people aren’t necessarily walking into the gallery spaces,” said Francis. “Each show has been virtualized, and it is a great platform.”

Spaces like Knowhere and Featherstone are at the heart of Martha’s Vineyard’s continued legacy as a hub for Black culture and creativity. As more venues like these continue to open across the island, locals and visitors alike will continue to build a rich, diverse community with deep ties to the arts.

Isis Davis-Marks

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that “Collide & Scope” was curated by Sadaf Padder. The exhibition was co-curated by Sadaf Padder and Valerie Francis.