Fogo Island: A blueprint for renewal and sustainability

Opening of Liam Gillick‘s Weather Station on Fogo Island with Zita Cobb, Nicolaus Schafhausen, Claire Shea, Gillick and Kitty Scott (from left to right)

Just back from Fogo Island, a remote isle off the northern coast of Newfoundland, Canada. And, boy, still processing all the amazing things I‘ve experienced there: The traditional fishing community has reinvented itself as a testing ground for new sustainable business and cultural growth. For starters, there is a luxury hotel quasi owned by the islanders: the Fogo Island Inn, designed by Todd Saunders, is furnished with tables, chairs and lamps, all manufactured on the island. Woodworkers put their know-how of boat and house building to new use and crafted simple, sturdy furniture. Local artisans, traditional quilt makers, knitters and rug-hookers, produced handmade blankets and pillows for the Inn. People from Fogo work as receptionists, bakers, barkeepers, cooks and guides. In their gardens they grow vegetables for the restaurant. All proceeds from the hotel business are reinvested into the community.

A luxury hotel owned by ordinary people

Then there is the art foundation, Fogo Island Arts, with an ambitious exhibition and residency program headed by German curator and art world luminary Nicolaus Schafhausen. In early October the foundation staged Fogo Island Arts Week featuring exhibitions of internationally acclaimed artists and local talents, workshops and open studios, panel discussions and guided tours. It’s a showcase of the changing island economy: islanders have started new businesses, textile workshops, ice-cream parlors, galleries, pottery studios, organic gardens, to diversify from the once dominating, then dwindling, now strictly regulated fishing industry. Sustainable (not mass) tourism is the new mantra.

For more than 300 years proud fishermen, many of Irish and Breton decent, had harvested tons of cod and lived a self sustained existence on this rough patch of land close to the arctic circle. The few visitors they got were other sailors or merchants. With the decline of the fishing industry the islanders became an endangered spezies, many moved to the mainland to find new jobs and lives – an all too familiar fate happening to local communities all over the world who got steamrolled over by global capitalism. The Canadian government even considered resettlement. But the islanders refused.

The fisherman now marvel at art

And they got help from a courageous woman! The renewal project is the brainchild of Zita Cobb, daughter of an eight’s generation Fogo Island fisherman, who had left the island to study economics and become a successful financial manager. In 2001 she cashed in her stock options, sailed around the world and finally returned home with a plan to support the dwindling island community. As a business-savy philanthropist with strong roots in Joe Batt’s Arm she founded the social enterprise Shorefast, she came up with the idea of the luxury hotel, she set up trusts benefitting the community, but above all she gained the trust of the islanders. Everything still is a work in progress. So far wealthy tourists seem to like the idea to pay 2500 Dollar a night in a cozy hotel on a far away island to detox from urban and digital overload (budget conscious costumers find less expensive B&B accomodations). Even though the pandemic put the breaks on many programs and would have certainly ruined the new hotel, if it weren‘t an nonprofit-operation, the island is now on the A-list of places to be. The New York Times rated it one of the 52 best places to visit in 2022. Digital natives with home office jobs are on the look-out for homes and properties. During Fogo Island Arts Week the hip UK architecture collective Assemble presented designs for affordable tiny houses. Just a first look, but it looked promising.