PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — Squint and it could still be 1916. On a walk through Provincetown’s East End one recent Friday evening, the brick sidewalks, unruly rosebushes, gray shingle-lined cottages, and streets barely big enough for a horse-driven carriage recalled an earlier era. Even more pleasantly jarring were the throngs of artgoers flowing in and out of dozens of galleries nestled along the water’s edge here at the tip of Cape Cod. The mood still evokes the setting of 100 years ago, when Provincetown established its reputation as the nation’s largest art colony.
The centennial is cause for celebration and Provincetown has been filled with commemorative exhibitions. Some focus on the transformative summer of 1916, when Europe was engulfed in World War I and New Yorkers who might have otherwise decamped to the Left Bank of Paris instead headed here, drawn by the legendarily brilliant light and the spectacular dunes, as well as the heady cultural mix. The playwright Eugene O’Neill, the writers Jack Reed and Louise Bryant and the painter Marsden Hartley were among the new arrivals, adding to a milieu already filled with hundreds of artists studying with the portraitist Charles Hawthorne or at four other competing art schools.
This migration pattern endures. Provincetown’s galleries are packed during July and August, when the town’s population swells to more than 60,000, from about 3,000. New York artists of all stripes remain thick on the ground alongside the local talent, from the filmmaker John Waters, who curated his favorites in a gleefully tasteless group show at the Albert Merola Gallery, to the poet Eileen Myles, who departs from her traditional prose with a playful installation of her personal memos at the AMP gallery and her photography at the Schoolhouse Gallery.
Different generations of artists casually mix, mingle and visit one another’s studios in ways rarely seen elsewhere. Suffused through it all is a palpable embrace of Provincetown’s history — not as a series of ancient events etched in textbooks but as a living continuum to be tapped and inventively updated, regardless of how old you are or how recently you washed ashore.
“The landscape here hasn’t changed that much,” explained Christine McCarthy, executive director at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. “You go out to Race Point Beach, people are still being inspired by that terrain and you can see it in their artwork. It hits you in the face like a glove: This is why artists were here, and this is why they continue to come back.”
The photographer Marian Roth is one such art pilgrim. She arrived in 1982, driving down from Syracuse in a van with several members of her women’s collective despite not knowing a soul here. Thirty-four years later, sitting in her Provincetown studio surrounded by prints of her strikingly ghostly camera obscura work, Ms. Roth said she’s never looked back. “I was a gay woman and I wanted to be an artist,” she said. “In Syracuse, people didn’t even know who the artists were. But here, you could walk into a restaurant, ask if they’d show your work, and they would! Immediately you could become part of a community that had a specific sense of place imprinted on it.”
What distinguishes Provincetown artists is not just that sharp sense of self-identity, but a downright old-school idea of what it means to be an artist. Aesthetic notions that would draw a dismissive eye roll in au courant curatorial circles — the importance of honing fundamental artistic skills, the primacy of the painstakingly crafted object — still hold powerful sway here.
For gallery visitors who find today’s dominant Conceptualism to be thin gruel, these kind of refreshing throwbacks define Provincetown — as does the sense that art here is less a vocation than a devoutly held lifelong calling. The Berta Walker Gallery titled a July show “Naughty Nineties,” a cheeky nod to the age of its participating artists — Varujan Boghosian, Carmen Cicero, Edward Giobbi and Gloria Nardin — all still focused on adding to their already formidable decades of work. For New Yorkers accustomed to the careful marketing of untested recent art-school graduates, the contrast was telling, as was the wide age range of attendees at the show’s opening.
Indeed, 90-somethings have been joined by younger generations of tyros. Some, like the printmaker William Evaul and the sculptor Bailey Bob Bailey, came as fellows to the Fine Arts Work Center and decided to stick around. Others, like the sculptor Breon Dunigan and the painter Tabitha Vevers, were born into dynasties of local artists and put vibrant twists on the family business. And still others, like Ms. Roth, the photographer, simply rolled in on a whim and never left.
Yet beneath Ms. Roth’s savoring of her adopted community is a growing feeling of angst, one shared by artists throughout Provincetown. Although cash has been pouring into the area in recent years — nearly three-quarters of Provincetown’s homes are now owned by second-home owners and investors — many of the latest arrivals rarely open their checkbooks for contemporary art. Caught between soaring housing costs and a small pool of active collectors, artists here are increasingly fearing for their survival. It is the grants Ms. Roth has received, from a Guggenheim to one this year from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, that have allowed her to hang on. “I don’t know how people who want to come here today like I did are going to make it,” she said.
Ms. Vevers echoes those concerns. By any local metric, hers is a success story: A recent solo show of her paintings at the Albert Merola Gallery sold out entirely, while the annual Provincetown Arts magazine — the cultural scene’s de facto yearbook — served up an 18-page salute to her signature blend of cavorting crustaceans and sexualized dreamscapes. But Ms. Vevers isn’t about to start popping Champagne bottles. “My work commands a price high enough that I can’t afford to buy it, but I can barely afford to live off it, either,” she said. “And that vertiginous limbo is just the way things are.”
What’s also missing for artists today is the sense that a Provincetown summer show is a crucial step in an artist’s career path, as it was as late as the 1960s, when many of Manhattan’s top dealers operated summer-only galleries here, spotlighting a who’s who of then-emerging artistic talent, including Red Grooms, Louise Nevelson and Larry Rivers.
Even Andy Warhol made the pilgrimage north for an early performance of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable, complete with whip-toting dancers and members of the Velvet Underground droning away on their guitars. Warhol was hardly a nature buff, but a Provincetown gig seemed like the best way to reach the New York cognoscenti come August. By the late ’60s, however, that Provincetown-New York art market axis dissolved. Today, Warhol would probably head first for the Hamptons (where, indeed, he settled in 1971).
Stephen Borkowski, an art historian and longtime member of the Provincetown Art Commission, called the challenges facing local artists “an endurance test.” “These changes aren’t just occurring in Provincetown,” he said. “We could be talking about Williamsburg or Greenpoint in the same way.”
“It’s never going to be 1916 again,” he added. “Rents are never going to be $25 for the summer. But that sense of community, that sense of artists being informed by other artists’ work, continues. There’s an alchemy here you can’t quite explain, but people know it’s worth fighting to sustain it.”
Call this tension the new normal. Except to at least one seasonal resident, even the “good old days” were never as easy as some might remember. “Rent was always expensive in Provincetown; everything cost a lot,” insisted Mr. Waters, who first hitchhiked here in 1964 and has returned every summer since. “I don’t think it’s changed. Times have changed. And I’m 70 now, not 20. I’ve always liked to ride a bicycle here. The difference is that I used to steal a bike the first night I came and then paint it a different color the next day.”
And now? “Now I rent a bike,” Mr. Waters continued with a chuckle. “That’s different, but it’s not that different.”
Exploring Provincetown’s Art
OVER 50 galleries dot Provincetown’s cramped streets, but the major outposts are clustered along the eastern end of Commercial Street and easily walkable. All are generally open into October, but call ahead. The person greeting you is probably the owner, who may decide to lock up early and head to the beach. The upside of that casual attitude? Prices are often a fraction of those at New York’s tonier white cubes.