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Charlotte Amalie
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HomeNewsArchivesOn Island Profile: Candia Atwater

On Island Profile: Candia Atwater

Nov. 12, 2007 — Candia Atwater, founder of the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, wants to teach the children of St. Croix they are valuable and there is always time for a new beginning — and there is no better role model for that message than her own life and the genesis of the center.
Atwater is a role model for second, third and fourth beginnings. She began college as an undergraduate at 30 after having children and raising them through their early years, and after helping to start an arts center in her town on Long Island, N.Y. While still raising three children, she graduated from the College at Old Westbury, a campus of the State University of New York, in 1977.
Atwater began law school that autumn. But life interfered and she did not finish her final year. A long, serious illness and recovery sidetracked her academic plans. Leaving the academic life for the work life, Atwater then clerked at a law firm for several years, learning on the job and in her spare time. She took and passed the New York bar examination and became an attorney in the mid 1980s.
"I was 44 when I was admitted to the bar," she says. "A lot of my fellow students at law school were in their 60s. I think it is important for young people to realize they can start over. Life is not over at 18. I think young people need to know it's OK to choose the wrong path for awhile and choose the right path later. Just follow the Golden Rule and try to leave the world a little better than you found it. That's what I've tried to do."
After becoming an attorney, Atwater moved to St. Croix from Port Washington, Long Island, in 1988 and became a prosecutor.
"It was the years I spent prosecuting juveniles that compelled me to start the museum center," she says. "I started prosecuting juveniles in 1990. In those years, the children were not into the type of crime they are into today. We had fights, but I don’t think hardly any — maybe one in 200 — involved a gun. But then, like now, there were too many young people unable to read or write and were undereducated. My thought was to recreate the kind of program we created in Long Island."
Atwater no longer prosecutes juvenile offenders and now works in family and domestic law.
In 1992 she began seriously thinking about setting up an art and education program.
"I've got no museum qualifications," she says. "It just evolved. I'm not artist or a critic. I am an art collector, and the collection led to the question of what to do with it."
But the museum principally grew out of the concept of an educational place, she says, with art as simply a vehicle to that end.
"We began doing art shows at Sunshine Mall and at Carambola while waiting for a building," she says. "We got the keys to the building (on Frederiksted's Strand Street) in November of 2003. The first Sunset Jazz after that was right across the street, and we had our doors open."
Now, several years later, the museum center and its programs are busy, popular and successful. "The most important thing," Atwater says, "is it becomes a real community center, so those living here and those passing through can do something, learn something and take something really positive away with them. The museum center is not just to come and look at a pretty painting. … We have been fortunate in getting grants, but our success is due to our successful programs."
Those programs include art and reading classes for schoolchildren, an artist-in-residence program and a myriad of other activities.
"The beauty of having this building (is) we have this courtyard for events and we have the waterfront in front. It's more than just the inside of the building. With the stage out front, we hope to stage dramas, dancing, painting exhibitions — maybe even playing marbles. We were just talking about how much fun that was as kids. Any activity to keep people active and curious is on the table."
There will be lots of activity inside the building, too. With renovations nearly complete on the circa-1780 Danish colonial structure, there will soon be several additional galleries in the museum. The second floor central hall will showcase V.I. artists, and several galleries off the main hall will display art from all over the world, Atwater says. Several rooms are apartments and studios for artists.There is a room to be devoted to pottery, with pottery wheels, drying shelves and, in an adjacent room, an electric kiln.
The educational mission of the center goes beyond training in artistic craft.
"As much as we can, we want to bring in elders, those who are tradition bearers, and attempt to bring back some of the traditional values in how we treat each other," Atwater says. "The young are looking to their elders for advice. Sometimes people are afraid to give advice, but it is part of your responsibility as an adult. With our classes, we are working on increasing their awareness of how important they are as individuals. Without that awareness ourselves as adults, we can't tell others how to be responsible."
Born in Pine Bluffs, Ark., Atwater and her family later moved to Buffalo, N.Y. When she was a child during World War II, her father worked on chemical munitions as a chemical engineer.
"He hated it and never spoke of it," she says.
She lived principally in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and Cambridge, Mass., before moving to St. Croix, though she traveled widely. The famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith is her uncle, and as a result, she was exposed to many of the best minds in America as a child. She has three grown sons, one in Seattle, one in Boulder and one, the youngest, in Holland since 1988.
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