Award-Winning Gallery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore Plans ‘Lucky 13th’ Celebration

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No one gave the Joie de Vivre Gallery much of a chance when owner Joy Staniforth launched the business on a shoestring in the struggling old downtown of Cambridge, Md. But Staniforth has proved the skeptics wrong, and her award-winning gallery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is getting ready to mark its “Lucky 13th Anniversary” on Saturday, Nov. 9.

When Joy Staniforth opened the Joie de Vivre Gallery in Cambridge, Maryland nearly 13 years ago, quite a few folks in town thought she’d lost her mind.

“Everybody said I’d be closed in six months,” she recalls. “I heard it so often that even I was amazed when the seventh month came around and the gallery was still going.”

It’s easy to laugh about those nerve-wracking early days today, but the skepticism that greeted Staniforth’s project was quite understandable at the time. A town of 10,000 in the state’s rural Eastern Shore region, Cambridge had been down on its luck for decades by the time the 21st century dawned.

Most of its manufacturing plants were empty. Its traditional old department stores were shuttered. Nearby towns like Easton and St. Michaels dominated the Chesapeake Bay tourism market, while downtown Cambridge remained littered with vacant storefronts and ramshackle old buildings.

No one saw a revival on the horizon. And no one was predicting that a happy-go-lucky, never-say-die immigrant from Cardiff, Wales would step up and help spark a turnaround. Now 72 years old, Staniforth is a tiny woman with a booming voice that’s a perfect match for the name of her business.

And on Saturday, Nov. 9, she’ll be celebrating the 13th anniversary of that business with a free party that goes from 5-8pm.

“The story of Joy’s contribution to Cambridge is inspiring,” says Phil Feldman, an insurance executive and the president of a nonprofit economic development group, Cambridge Main Street. “Her energy and optimism are just infectious, and she’s just hell bent on making sure this town moves forward.”

Staniforth first came to Cambridge in 1991 to take a job as director of the local YMCA. When her run there was over, she put aside any thoughts of retirement in favor of launching her gallery adventure.

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly the retiring type,” she says with a laugh. “I’d just fallen in love with this town, and I felt there was so much potential here. The waterfront is incredibly beautiful. The downtown has these gorgeous architectural bones. I just found myself thinking, ‘Why shouldn’t Cambridge be a big success on the Eastern Shore?’”

Nowadays, Joie de Vivre stands at the heart of a downtown on the move, with a string of award-winning restaurants and shops having opened up in recent years.

Through it all, Staniforth has stayed true to her passion for the arts. Everything in Joie de Vivre Gallery is made by artists, from the textiles and jewelry pieces to the paintings and sculptures. Staniforth has worked tirelessly over the years to cultivate and promote an impressive roster of regional artists. Four times in recent years Joie de Vivre has been honored by area magazines in their “Best of” the region rankings.

“There are so many amazing artists here on the Eastern Shore and here in Dorchester County,” Staniforth says. “And they’re just such an amazingly diverse lot of people, with this really broad range of styles and talents.”

Staniforth will be using the occasion of her “Lucky 13th Anniversary” to showcase that diversity—as well as her own immigrant roots. In November and December, the gallery will feature an “International Artists Show” dedicated to works made by artists born outside this country.

A special reception is planned on Saturday, Nov. 9, at 5:30pm. The featured artists themselves will be providing ethnic hors d’oeurves for the occasion, which coincides with the “Second Saturday” festivities held every month throughout downtown Cambridge.

No downtown revitalization process is a one-person show, of course. It takes a proverbial village to bring a dying downtown back to life, with an array of civic leaders, nonprofit groups, community volunteers, entrepreneurs, and property owners all having roles to play.

That’s certainly true of Cambridge’s comeback as well, but one amazing aspect of the story there is how many of those roles Staniforth herself has stepped up to fill.

After taking her entrepreneurial leap with the gallery, Staniforth helped spearhead the creation of a state-certified “Arts & Entertainment District” that delivers tax breaks and other incentives. She was part of the group that helped start up the nonprofit Cambridge Main Street to promote a lasting revitalization. She went on to serve one term as president of the group, as well several terms on the Board of Directors.

In 2010, she bought the second floor of her building and set about transforming that shell of a space into four gorgeous “Artist Loft Studios.” The rear space of her gallery now houses the Race Street Gallery and showcases juried works by more than 20 regional artists.

Before opening that Race Street Gallery, Staniforth used that rear space as a kind of mini-incubator housing baby start-up businesses as they strived to grow into real ones. Two of those operations eventually moved out into their own downtown storefronts.

While Staniforth’s eye for art is obviously a key to her success, her outsized personality plays a role as well. Despite her roots across “The Pond”, Staniforth has somehow managed to create a gallery that even locals recognize as a quintessential Cambridge experience.

Visitors might find a gaggle of those locals gathered in the gallery, gossiping and laughing. Or they might catch the owner plucking away happily on her mandolin. Upon seeing passersby in front of her store, Staniforth has an entertaining penchant for running outside to coax them in for a visit, and she genuinely will not take no for an answer.

That kind of joyous determination is at the heart of the success story that Joie de Vivre has become over the last 13 years. Lately, Staniforth has begun to think about taking baby steps towards a less demanding lifestyle, perhaps by taking on a partner who might succeed her in the business down the road, but those decisions haven’t been made yet.

“I’m still enjoying this so much right now—it’s still a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s so great to see things happening in Cambridge and to think back to those early years. So many people have worked so hard to get this town moving. I’m just so happy to be a part of it.”

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