Provincetown art colony: Where light, water, and art meet
Provincetown, Massachusetts continues its seasonal tradition of vibrant colors and characters.
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The town has supported many industries over the centuries, legal and not, including piracy, bootlegging, fishing, whaling, and salt production. But the production of plays, novels, and paintings has been by far the most important factor in shaping the town.Skip to next paragraph
When the bohemians of Greenwich Village began summering here to escape the heat of New York City in the early 20th century, they were drawn to the isolation and freedom they found here. Their presence, and that of those who followed, ensured a place for Provincetown in the history of American culture.
Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) staged his first play, a one-act titled "Bound East for Cardiff," on the wharf here in 1916. Major 20th-century artists, such as Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, joined legions of painters who summered here. Tennessee Williams (1911-83) wrote plays while staying with friends. Norman Mailer (1923-2007) produced 30 books during his 60 years visiting Provincetown. He moved here permanently in 1990, and his home is now the site of a writers' colony.
Over lobster rolls I sit down with Richard Olson, the town's unofficial historian, to hear stories about the literati. Mr. Olson describes O'Neill as a brooding presence, a man who kept largely to himself except when he was drinking. O'Neill lived for a time in a room above the noisy Atlantic House bar, and wrote in the town library or later in a house on the ocean. Although O'Neill's seaside retreat no longer stands, the Atlantic House, or A-House as it's known, is easily found on Masonic Place at the center of town.
Decades later, Williams watched the comings and goings from his perch at the A-House bar, where it's said he wrote parts of "The Glass Menagerie." Olson chuckles when he says the barstools are famous today because of the Pulitzer Prize winners (O'Neill won four and Williams two) who have fallen off them.
A big part of Provincetown's attraction comes from the tolerant attitude of its residents, a legacy from the days of sailors and rum-runners. "The Wild West of the East," Mailer dubbed it. The peninsula's remoteness and the difficulty getting here added to its mystique. "Land's end is where marginalized people wind up," says Olson. A similar pattern developed in Key West at the tip of Florida, and the two towns share in common a large and active gay community.
An artistic camaraderie prevailed almost from the beginning. "There was no hierarchy," says Stephen Borkowski, the town's art commissioner. And artists found the casual atmosphere – away from the spotlight of New York – conducive to taking risks in their work.
"A magical confluence" is how Vivian Bullaudy, director of exhibitions at the Hollis Taggart Galleries in New York, describes the vibrant Provincetown arts colony in a phone conversation. That confluence is being celebrated in an exhibition at the New Britain (Connecticut) Museum of American Art, "The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America's Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011)." She considers the exhibition, which will travel, a watershed moment in the colony's evolution. Underappreciated artists may gain more notice from scholars and collectors alike, potentially helping to create a more competitive market for Provincetown art.