by Kara Bledsoe

Founded in 1994 by lawyer and art collector Candia Atwater to serve the youth of Saint Croix, the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts (CMCArts) has offered a dynamic suite of programming for children and young adults and has championed local artists and their work for over 25 years. Though she had no museum training, Atwater recognized a need for an educational space for youth, as an alternative to the violence she observed in family court. Her love of the arts inspired the first exhibitions, which took place at local venues like the Sunshine Mall and the Carambola, but CMCArts’ main event is the Island Art and Soul Calendar, which Atwater created in 1993. “Candia used to sell calendars out of the trunk of the car to raise funds to have a space for the museum,” Museum Manager Jay Weiss remembers. Now, the calendar has an international circulation of approximately 5,000, reaching all the way to Japan. With this year’s release of its largest edition ever—“50 artists from 14 different regions of the Caribbean,” according to Weiss—the Island Art and Soul Calendar is expected to be the biggest fundraiser of the year. 

In November 2003, CMCArts realized Atwater’s dream and moved into their own facility on Frederiksted’s Strand Street, a major thoroughfare. “The first Sunset Jazz after that was right across the street, and we had our doors open,” Atwater recalled in a 2007 “On Island Profile” by The St. Croix Source. CMCArts’ historic building was built during Danish colonial rule in the late eighteenth century. Though much of the original character of the building has been preserved, the former private residence has lived many lives and is now a bustling community hub for the arts and education. The multiple floors, inner courtyard, and waterfront view allowed CMCArts to inaugurate a permanent exhibition, a series of curated temporary exhibitions, artist residencies, performing arts programs, and classes and workshops for all ages.

Acknowledging how colonial intervention brought a multiplicity of peoples together as Crucians, CMCArts’ mission is “to inspire and promote the Caribbean’s rich cultural and artistic heritage” by including this diverse population in its programming. “[We] want to build bridges between the islands of the Caribbean utilizing art,” Weiss states. The latest temporary exhibit, Reflections on Emancipation and Post Colonial Society, involves a meditation on Black liberation movements in North, South, and Central America while centering on the expression of Barbadian artists. CMCArts presented works from queer Caribbean artists for Pride Month this past June, and the museum hosts an annual Virgin Islands/Puerto Rico Friendship Exhibition to mark the shared Virgin Islands-Puerto Rico Friendship Day holiday and history between these islands. Though Weiss qualifies that the permanent collection at CMCArts is “young,” it is growing and also reflects the variety of Crucians: black and white images of the landscape taken by Fritz Henle, a German photographer who raised his family in St. Croix; colorful watercolors of locals painted by American expats; and countless pieces of memory, celebration, and conviction created by native Crucians like Lloyd “Dove” Braffith and artists from the Caribbean diaspora. 

Today, CMCArts continues to build on its founding principles and to prioritize intergenerational exchange. Weiss shares that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum invested heavily in “stepping into traditions” so that youth were introduced to traditional art forms and cultural practices such as storytelling and making shekeres (a West African percussion instrument). Weiss also notes that the current artist-in-residence is Ras Ilix Heartman, a Barbadian wood sculptor whose practice is heavily rooted in African influence. As many CMCArts’ programs facilitate a deeper connection to the past, the museum has embraced new developments in tourism and commerce to support its programs, from their Airbnb listings to their new online store. Though the building closed at the start of the pandemic, CMCArts began offering many programs virtually, like their first paid jazz live stream hosted on their website in 2020. Amidst all the changes the pandemic has brought, the last year has seen a marked growth in organizational capacity, with major steps taken to document the collection, to increase virtual engagement numbers, and to improve their facilities. The future of CMCArts is an extension of its ongoing successes: more community-centered programs to connect the people of the Caribbean through art and shared history. Weiss concludes: “Our effort currently is how we continue to reach out to other islands and connect to artists, and how we project their work and give them exposure to the entire world.” 

The recent exhibition Claiming Spaces: The African Story of the Sugar Mill will be available Claiming Spaces opens virtually and onsite in St. Croix at the end of August.