The Working Waterfront

Small business survival means building lifeboats


Elaine Crossman
Posted 2020-07-02
Last Modified 2020-10-04

As a small business owner, particularly one whose business resides on an island overlooking the great Atlantic Ocean, thoughts about sinking ships are probably unavoidable just now. I find myself often comparing my efforts to keep New Era Gallery here on Vinalhaven open to those of the musicians on the Titanic—doing what we know how to do, though the deck is slanting and the water is too close for comfort.

The eldest of those musicians was just 34—half my current age. Would I feel differently about the pandemic, and the collapse of the economy, if I were younger? More resilient? Would I launch into a new line of work? Building lifeboats, perhaps?

My community has stepped up to meet the COVID-19 challenge in truly remarkable ways. It hit us during the quiet part of the year, and so we were graced with time to learn a whole new set of skills. We wash our hands, we wear masks, we look out for one another. As island businesses start to reopen, as people start to move around more, as seasonal residents trickle back in, we all fervently hope that these new skills are enough to keep us safe.

Each island micro-business is a particular thread in the overall weave of island life. My gallery, 19-years-old this year, has become a place for people to see some of the extraordinary work done in the studios tucked away in many parts of the island, a place where people gather to learn about that work and the artists who produce it. For all those years, against what sometimes felt were remarkable odds, the gallery has succeeded solely through the sales of artwork, without the benefit of any kind of public funding or membership fees.

This spring, as the pandemic floodwaters rose, I wrote my first grant application. And as I struggled through the application process for federal relief options for small businesses, a mostly ceremonial enterprise, I held in mind the glowing colors that each of these small enterprises represents in our island tapestry. That each one is important.

The first show of the 2020 season, called “Spring!” or alternatively, “Art in the Time of Pandemic, Volume 1” is a beauty. Work by 34 of the more than 70 artists who show here at any given time fill walls and plinths and the sculpture garden.

As often happens, the show developed a palette as the work came in—blue is the central color in this instance—blue water, blue skies, blue glazes, blue fibers, blue abstractions. I am surrounded by work that holds a deep optimism. I am reminded that art exists in a different and larger sense of time. When we excavate ancient civilizations, what do we look for first? The artwork.

I have learned a new set of skills in the past two months, skills to get the work out into the world when the world may not come to us. A new and more interactive website, videos of the shows, social media postings have all become so much more critical in the time of social distancing. Will they be enough? We don’t yet know. I see so many others trying to reach out in these ways that seemed secondary at best a few months ago, and I worry for us all.

My husband Phil, a writer known to so many in the Midcoast (whose column appears in the The Working Waterfront), is braver, often wiser, and always calmer than I. When I suggested that I might need to abandon a lifetime of acquired skills and learn how to build lifeboats, he replied by telling me, “What you are doing, keeping your business going through all of this uncertainty, is building a lifeboat.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way—that by keeping my one little piece of the economy afloat, I am doing my part to keep us all buoyant. I’m counting on him to be right.

Elaine Crossman lives on Vinalhaven with her husband Phil and operates New Era Gallery.