The exhibition “The Great Provincetown Summer — 1916,” which runs at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum through Nov. 30, looks back to a formative moment in the town’s history. World War I had closed off Europe to the American avant-garde. What had long been an artists colony on the Outer Cape now became the bohemian capital of the United States.
Among Provincetown residents that summer were the playwright Eugene O’Neill; the artists Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Marguerite and William Zorach; and the journalists John Reed and Mary Heaton Vorse.
“While volumes could be written on each aspect of that period,” says museum executive director John McDonagh, “the magic here is how in a single visit a visitor can get a sense of the context — the why of Provincetown, the who of Provincetown — in that one summer.”
In practical terms, the exhibition might be said to have originated in 1996. That’s when Stephen Borkowski, chairman of the museum’s collections and exhibitions committee, bought a set of glass-plate negatives documenting that summer. A number of those photographs had been used to illustrate a 1916 Boston Globe Sunday Magazine story called “Biggest Art Colony in the World at Provincetown.”
A seed was planted which two decades later produced this centenary show, with its intermingling of theater, visual art, politics, personalities, and unconventional lifestyles — in other words, a foreshadowing of a future Provincetown.
How intermingled? Along with paintings, photographs, and prints, there are two original chairs from the wharf theater where the Provincetown Players staged their first productions and a wicker chaise once owned by O’Neill.
In 1916, two new art schools were established in Provincetown, the painter George Elmer Browne’s the West End School and the Modern School of Art. The Zorachs were among its founders. Also starting that year was a now-venerable Provincetown institution, the Beachcombers club for writers and artists.
“The Great Provincetown Summer — 1916” takes its title from an unpublished memoir that Hartley later wrote about “that period in the history of Provincetown which has made more history than any other because more of real consequence was taking place.”
Sam Tager curated the show. Tager, assistant director/senior designer for the Harvard museums of science and culture, started work on the exhibition only in October. “It was a crash course in the subject matter for me,” he says with a laugh.
Tager didn’t come unprepared. His family has had a summer house in Provincetown since the 1960s. The house had been owned by Provincetown Players founders George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell. “So we grew up believing that O’Neill’s [first produced play] ‘Bound East for Cardiff’ had its first reading in our living room,” Tager says.
“Everyone has their own Provincetown,” he adds, “and that’s true on so many different levels.” Part of the excitement of this show, he adds, is how it touches on so many of those Provincetowns.
Expect something even more ambitious at the museum four years from now. “All these things are leading up to the Holy Grail for us,” McDonagh says: the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ first landfall in the New World, at Provincetown.
THE GREAT PROVINCETOWN SUMMER — 1916
At Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, through Nov. 30. 508-487-1310, www.pilgrim-monument.org