Island Gallery Owner is Buyer, Artist Matchmaker

Elaine Crossman marks 20 years with New Era Gallery on Vinalhaven

Story by Tom Groening and Photos by William Trevaskis

No one on Vinalhaven objects to thousands of pounds of lobster heading to the mainland each summer. After all, that export is the economic lifeblood of this island.

But Elaine Crossman saw another export heading for the mainland and thought she should do something to interrupt it. That export was art—paintings, sculpture, photography—and having it displayed and sold on-island is one of the reasons she gives for starting New Era Gallery, now in its 20th year.

Crossman, a painter and printmaker herself, displays and sells the work of many seasonal and year-round artists—who could happily and prosperously limit their sales to urban galleries—and finds willing buyers among other seasonal and year-round islanders.

She took time out on a late winter afternoon to reflect on the success she’s been able to achieve in this fishing town. Perhaps the biggest key to that success is that she straddles both the creative and business worlds, since she is both artist and entrepreneur, a formally trained painter and a long-time year-round islander.

And those perspectives are not separate: “I run the gallery the same way I construct a painting,” she explains. During a tour of the space, she shows how paintings and three-dimensional pieces are grouped around a color, subject, or texture theme. The effect is subtle and pleasing to the eye.

A theme also emerges as Crossman recounts the journey that led to the island and this gallery.

After growing up in South Reading, Vermont, a small rural town where her family roots extend back to the 1700s, she attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, eventually earning a Master of Fine Arts degree. But Philly wasn’t a good fit, at least in the early 1970s.

“It was a very violent city, a very crime-ridden city,” Crossman remembers. She landed on Vinalhaven in 1976.

Not surprisingly, the island changed her aesthetic sensibilities.

“I did a lot of interiors for a lot of years,” she remembers, and what she describes as semi-abstract prints. “I continued to work in landscapes, but not very seriously until I came out here. You set foot in this place and you think, ‘How can I not?’” Winter is especially powerful in its lonelier mood.

“There’s nothing between you and those elements of rock, water, and sky.”

The island is more than a subject to be rendered in paint, she says. “It’s not just physically beautiful. It’s also deeply compelling.”

The gallery was born in 2002, the year Crossman’s daughter left to attend college. She’d had a good year selling her work in a couple of mainland galleries, and “I was turning 50,” she says with a laugh. But it was more than those forces conspiring.

“I had seen a steady stream of art going back across the bay to be sold in mainland galleries,” and she thought, “What if I cast a net into that stream?” She also was committed to helping boost the town. “It needs to be a part of Main Street, and Main Street culture.”

The gallery began in a small building that fronted on Main Street; then in 2007, she was driving by what had been a vacant lot a few doors down and saw a building under construction. It was a now or never moment, as the center wall was in the midst of being framed, and Crossman took the plunge.

That center wall is non-existent, allowing for two separate, though small, wings. Later, she added display space in a barn behind the gallery and a sculpture garden.

Though its domain is rooted in the creative, a gallery is very much a business; at its most basic, it is an art store, not a museum. But that store features the work of people who create far from the gallery and heed their own muses. The customers, too, are not stopping by to pick up a postcard or even a piece of furniture for a guest room. Art is a very personal choice.

Crossman’s approach to choosing what to feature is both gut-level and carefully considered.

“I have to love it. The price also has to be right. And it has to be someone I can work with,” and so she sees herself as a sort of matchmaker.

Perhaps the most remarkable dynamic at play at New Era is that this matchmaker role has her welcoming and including seasonal artists, some of whom have work in the permanent collections of world-class museums, to sell some of their work here. In all, she features the work of some 70 artists.

And just as important is her ability to find those year-round and seasonal residents who are able to buy art without batting an eye.

Some of those buyers might not stand out if they stroll by on the sidewalk, she says, and that’s because they enjoy the low-key informality of Vinalhaven. Crossman is committed to honoring their wishes to remain somewhat anonymous.

“It’s an interesting dance. The buying community I work with is really interested in supporting our art community.” When they come into the gallery, “The first question is not, ‘What am I looking at?’ It’s ‘Who is this?’”

Along with the pleasingly resonant groupings, a stroll around the gallery reveals work that is accessible yet strong. In response to a lingering eye over this print and that painting, Crossman asserts that “Every piece of art in here is worthy of someone’s attention.”

Since the pandemic, she has had to learn new skills in connecting artist with buyer. An Island Institute grant helped her create a new website, and video and other tools are helping her “reach out beyond these four walls.”

Crossman is bullish on this summer, planning on five shows, beginning Memorial Day Weekend.

Near the end of our conversation, she shares what she considers the highest of compliments for New Era Gallery, someone who observed: “I would feel differently about this community if the gallery weren’t here.”

Tom Groening is editor of Island Journal. William Trevaskis lives on North Haven and teaches music on Vinalhaven.