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Provincetown’s art scene is still a big draw

Provincetown has more than 60 galleries.
Provincetown has more than 60 galleries.(Pamela Wright for the Boston Globe)

Talk to artists and gallery owners and old-timers in Provincetown and they lament. It’s not the same. Rents and real estate have skyrocketed. Artists can’t afford to live here. There are too many second home owners. It’s not old P-town.

And yet. It may not be the old P-town, but it’s still a buzzing, vibrant hub for anyone who appreciates the arts. In this small, three-square-mile town at the tip of the Cape, art is everywhere, on the streets, in the restaurants and shops, town buildings, art schools and museums, and in the more than 60 galleries and countless studios.

And, the town’s artistic ties run deep. Provincetown is the oldest continuous art colony in America, established in 1899, when Charles Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of Art. Throughout the early 1900s, renowned artists came to study and paint with Hawthorne, known for his plein-air, Impressionist-style paintings.

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“So many artists have come through Provincetown, whether to study with Hawthorne or through word of mouth,” says Chris McCarthy, CEO of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM). “It’s the who’s who of artists.”

Today, that legacy continues, as artists come to study in workshops offered at PAAM, the Cape School of Art, the Fine Arts Works Center, and the nearby Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. As one artist told us, they come for the “end-of-the-world, magical light” and to create in a community known for its originality and freedom of expression. As much as things change, some things remain the same.

“Artists who are coming to Provincetown today are still looking at the same things that artists were looking at 120 years ago,” says McCarthy. “How they depict it depends on their style and interpretation. But the landscape hasn’t changed. The light hasn’t changed.”

We started with a visit to Town Hall, which was where Provincetown artists exhibited their work before PAAM opened in 1914. The 1885 historic building is home to a large collection of original paintings by Provincetown artists, including two by Charles Hawthorne. PAAM (www.paam.org) also has an original Hawthorne among its more than 3,000 works by some 700 artists. It has the second largest collection of Edward and Josephine Hopper works in the world, with a recent acquisition of 200 works from the Hopper’s Cape Cod home. There’s a variety of changing, award-winning exhibitions held throughout the year, many of which feature past Provincetown artists. The museum also offers more than 45 art classes and workshops. “We represent this crazy artistic legacy that’s Provincetown,” McCarthy says.

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Later in the day, we checked into the White Porch Inn Art Hotel (www.whiteporchinn.com), a 10-room, contemporary boutique hotel, within easy walking distance to downtown galleries, restaurants, and shops. Well-designed rooms (some with fireplaces and private porches) and public areas are done in white and neutral hues, punctuated by original works from local, national, and international artists. “We work with over 50 artists from around the world, and many of our guests are collectors,” says Tom Shirk, owner and curator.

In the evening, we visited art-filled Napi’s (www.napisptown.com), a longstanding restaurant, filled with fine art, salvaged building materials, and eclectic décor (think stained glass windows, carousel horses, and nude mannequins.) Owners Helen and Napi Van Dereck have been collecting art for decades, and have one of the largest collections of Provincetown art in the world. Two stiff drinks later, we were admiring the art and taking photos all around. (Try their Portuguese soup!)

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The next day we met Hilda Neily at her gallery filled with her beautiful plein-air landscape oil paintings (www.hildaneilygallery.com). “I came here in 1968 to paint,” Neily says. “There are some places that are so beautiful they inspire you to create something. You can feel that here.” Neily started painting with Henry Hensche, who also founded the Cape School of Art and studied under Hawthorne. Her light-filled paintings are vivid and colorful depicting Provincetown and lower Cape Cod scenes.

Tucked down a cobblestone alley off the main drag was the Bakker Gallery, specializing in generational Provincetown works (www.bakkerproject.com). We looked at an exhibit of paintings by Marion Hawthorne, wife of Charles Hawthorne and an artist in her own right. “There were hundreds of women who attended classes with Hawthorne,” James Bakker, gallery owner and former president of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, says. “I specialize in women artists working in Cape Cod and Provincetown. Many are talented but obscure. I like to bring them to focus.”

We talked with Angela Russo, a fine art photographer, who shows and sells her work at The Karilon Gallery (www.russophoto.com). Her photos, using state-of-the-art pigment printing, showcase Provincetown scenes. She’s been shooting in P-town for more than 15 years, and never runs out of inspiration. “It’s a beautiful, natural, evocative place if you get beyond the two main streets,” she says.

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One of our favorite stops was the award-winning Cortile Gallery (cortilegallery.com), set in a former 1800s sea captain’s house, and consistently voted the best gallery on Cape Cod and the Islands by Cape Cod LIFE magazine readers. The bright, unpretentious gallery exhibits and sells original contemporary works of established and emerging local and national artists. The gallery represents more than 30 artists, but the majority are local, including A. Paul, specializing in textured, abstract expressionist Cape Cod landscapes; Robert Longley, who studied under Hensche and paints Impressionist-inspired landscapes; and Brenda Silva, who comes from a four-generation Provincetown Portuguese fishing family, and uses her childhood memories to inspire her fine oil paintings of Provincetown Harbor’s fishing fleets of the past.

“I can’t imagine living with blank walls,” says Kerry Filiberto, Cortile Gallery director. “The art world is an exciting world to be part of. The times we live in now and in the past are always reflected in art in some form.”

Filiberto escorted us to the Cortile Gallery Artist Studios, just up the street from the gallery, where some of her top-collected local artists work. It’s open to the public, and a not-to-be-missed vibrant, colorful workspace, filled with paints and canvasses and works in progress. Longley and A. Paul were there when we visited, each working on new paintings.

When we asked them if it was tough to be an artist in P-town these days, they shrugged it off. Artists have always struggled.

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“I lived in a campground when I first came to Provincetown,” Longley told us. “You do what you have to do.” Today, more than 40 years later, Longley is a highly collected third-generation artist of the Cape School of Art.

For general information, visit www.provincetowntourismoffice.org. Gallery guides and self-guided walking tour maps and information are available at the Tourism Office located downtown at 330 Commercial St. Friday Night Gallery Stroll is held on Friday nights, May through September.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.