Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



The Provincetown Art Association and Museum

by Christine McCarthy


The Beginnings


Provincetown, the isolated fishing village perched forty miles out to sea in the Atlantic Ocean, was coined the "Biggest Art Colony in the World" by the Boston Globe on August 27, 1916. The Provincetown Art Colony originated when Charles W. Hawthorne established his Cape Cod School of Art in summer 1899 (fig. 18).

The year 1914 was very important for Provincetown, which boasted a healthy economic climate, bustling wharves, and a solid fishing industry. A tremendous influx of artists and writers arrived from Greenwich Village and abroad. There was a solid cadre of schools and teaching artists -- Hawthorne, E. Ambrose Webster (fig. 19), and William Paxton -- and the Provincetown Art Association began its life. On August 22, 1914, a group of artists and townspeople officially acknowledged the need for an established arts institution.

In 1915 five major painters of the time -- Gerrit Beneker, Oscar Gieberich, William Halsall, Hawthorne, and E. Ambrose Webste -- donated art to plant the seed for a permanent collection. The result of their efforts, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, today houses more than three thousand objects and continues to grow. The nearly 650 artists represented in the collection all have, at one time or another, worked on Outer Cape Cod from the early 1900s to the present. Of all the arts organizations in Provincetown today, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum boasts the longest and richest history and anchors the oldest continuous art colony in the nation.

In 1915 nearly ninety students were experiencing plein air painting at the Cape Cod School of Art, and by the following year more than three hundred artists were working and experimenting within the operating art schools. Concurrently, poets, actors, playwrights, journalists, and novelists were gracing Provincetown with their Bohemian lifestyle and the Provincetown Players began the Theater on the Wharf at Mary Heaton Vorse's fish-house wharf property (fig. 20).

The American white-line woodblock print, also known as the Provincetown print, was developed by a core group of six American artists that had been influenced by Japanese woodcuts and color lithography in Europe in the 1890s. Four of the six -- Ada Gilmore, Ethel Mars, Mildred McMillen, and Maud Squire -- had lived and studied in Paris before their arrival in 1915. The four were joined by Juliette Nichols and B. J. O. Nordfeldt to form the original group of Provincetown printmakers.

According to Ada Gilmore, "[Nordfeldt] soon became impatient with the mechanical labor of cutting so many blocks of wood . . . before he could express his idea; one day he surprised the others by exhibiting one block, with his complete design on that, instead of parts of it being cut on five or six blocks. He had cut a groove in the wood to separate each color, and in printing this left a white line which emphasized the design." [1]

Oliver Chaffee, Karl Knaths, and Blanche Lazzell continued the printmaking tradition in Provincetown throughout the twentieth century. Today, contemporary printmakers carry on the tradition as teachers and exhibiting artists.

The first six annual exhibitions organized by the Provincetown Art Association were held at Town Hall and membership was growing at a rapid clip. In summer 1916 Provincetown had seen an increase in artists because the war in Europe had forbidden Americans to travel overseas. The artists Gifford Beal, Max Bohm, George Elmer Browne, and Richard E. Miller had arrived at Cape Cod.

The year 1916 saw the continuation and establishment of a handful of schools of fine art: West End School of Art by George Elmer Browne; A Summer School of Painting by Webster (fig. 21); Cape Cod School of Art by Harry Campbell, Oscar Gieberich, and Hawthorne; The Modern School of Art by Frederick Burt, M. Musselman Carr, Nordfeldt, and William and Marguerite Zorach; and A Class in Color and Monochrome Etching by George Sensany.

By 1921 Provincetown Town Hall was no longer available as an exhibition venue for the Provincetown Art Association's artist members. The Provincetown Art Association's board of trustees voted to turn the Bangs/Commercial Street property that they had purchased in 1918 into a "museum." The Provincetown Art Association was officially incorporated and incurred $5,250 in construction costs to renovate the sea captain's house at 460 Commercial Street (fig. 22). "The seventh year of the Provincetown Art Association, the fortunate year, is bringing good luck in full measure. The small group of artists who met in 1914 is seeing the fruition of their plans to found an organization with sufficient red blood to establish itself permanently in the life of the town . . . the old Colonial house stood waiting and the artists and other citizens have made it a Museum building, which for all time will stand for the spirit of Art which now abides in this historic place." [2]


An Acute Division: Traditionalists Versus Modernists


The Provincetown art colony has played a significant role in the history of American art. Fewer than twelve years into its existence, the Provincetown Art Association experienced an acute division between traditional and abstract artists. In 1927 it addressed this split by holding a separate modernist exhibition annually as a result of a petition circulated by Tod Lindenmuth, Ross Moffett, and thirty other artists. According to the Annual Report of 1926, then-president William H. Young stated, "Differences of opinion naturally arise in the conduct of affairs of any association or corporation and such differences are manifestations of interest and usually of strength. Without them the Association is apt to lack life and vitality. We have had such manifestations during this past year which no doubt will result in the general good of all, and I think we are to be congratulated on the spirit of toleration and respect each individual or party has shown for the opinions of others."[3] This power struggle lasted more than ten years before the division lines became indistinguishable. Important and well-respected artists such as Edwin Dickinson, Lucy and William L'Engle, Charles Kaeselau, Moffett, and Agnes Weinrich helped bridge the gap between the two movements during this rather tumultuous time (fig. 23).

In 1930 Charles W. Hawthorne died and the Provincetown Art Association membership discussed a suitable memorial to honor this important figure. A bronze bust was given to the museum, and in 1942 and a memorial gallery was erected to commemorate "their honored friend and master."

One of Provincetown's most affluent painters, Hans Hofmann, opened his School of Fine Art in 1934 in the rented studio formerly occupied by Hawthorne on Miller Hill (fig. 24). His unique method of instruction focused on Abstract Expressionism and Cubism. The 1930s through the 1950s produced a cultural upheaval: the Hofmann School and the influx of artists from Europe brought art in Provincetown to a new level. Today, a number of Hofmann's students such as Robert Henry and Selina Trieff exhibit and teach at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum year round, emphasizing Hofmann's theory of "push and pull" (see cat. no. 56). As a result, the Provincetown Art Association hosted the first combined exhibition of modernists and traditionalists in 1937.

Hofmann operated out of his Miller Hill studio until 1944 when the property was purchased by Morris Davidson unbeknownst to Hofmann. Davidson opened his School of Painting and the displaced Hofmann held his classes in various locations around Provincetown until he purchased the Waugh studio on Commercial Street in 1946.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Provincetown was a summer center for Abstract Expressionists such as Fritz Bultman, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock. Analytic forums and sophisticated programs focusing on avant-garde architecture, poetry and music were part of the nightly activities attended by record crowds-many of these events were held at the Museum or in local galleries. The formation of galleries provided a popular showcase for emerging artists and the establishment of the Chrysler Museum in 1958 offered a large, eclectic collection and assortment of exhibitions, art-related programs and events.


A Real Museum


In 1977 the Provincetown Art Association's board approved the addition of "museum" to its title. The permanent collection was close to one thousand objects and it seemed fitting that organization be called the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, even though it had been referred to as "the museum" as early as the 1930s and had been fulfilling museum functions since its inception (figs. 25, 26). "The Museum building is now the Art Center of the town and of the Cape, and the promised activities to be held during the exhibitions will bring artists and their public together in a friendly way. By the Art Lectures and Concerts, and frequent dances, all the arts will receive homage within the Museum, of which Provincetown is so justly proud." [4]

In 1999 Provincetown celebrated its centennial as an operating arts community. Its ever- changing energy and dynamism are evident through the working artists, writers, and performers that occupy the streets, dunes, and studios scattered throughout the quaint fishing village. Outer Cape Cod has been a venue for major American artists since the beginning of the twentieth century. The collection of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum is a resource for the region and for American museums across the country. The collection serves as a record of the changing art movements and important historical events that have marked American art history in the last century, and it will continue to do so in the future.

In the early 1990s the Provincetown Art Association and Museum became a year-round organization, prominently featuring work by artist members as well as the permanent collection. Classes, lectures, exhibition openings, and concerts occurred annually, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum provided a social haven for the Cape Cod community. Because its building had not been winterized, a number of "quick-fix" options were in place. It was inevitable that the structure was going to need serious attention, as no legitimate work had been put into the building since the 1970s. In 1967 an ad-hoc committee was formed to consider renovation and expansion of the facility. A Boston architect was a hired, a development director was in place, and a design that housed the Provincetown Theater on the second floor was rolled out. Unfortunately, it was never realized, and the museum operated for the next thirty years with a variety of temporary heating and cooling solutions. A number of leaks in the galleries made it nearly impossible to borrow works from other museums, and exhibition content became limited. Storage for the permanent collection was at capacity, and many collectors were considering other options to house their artwork.

In 2002 the Provincetown Art Association and Museum hired the architectural firm of Machado and Silvetti Associates to renovate and expand the existing structure. The basic program included increasing storage and gallery space (fig. 27); the addition of educational facilities for painting, drawing, and printmaking; climatizing the facility with the introduction of green systems; and revamping the outdoor spaces. Interestingly enough, the approved design linked the traditional Colonial-style house with a modernist wing (fig. 28). Not unlike the rift of 1927, it made some people uncomfortable about integrating styles of architecture and design, but the facility has never been more appropriate to the mission of the museum, which preserves the legacy of the art colony while encouraging contemporary art making. In 2006 the Provincetown Art Association and Museum was certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as the first green art museum in America, and in 2009 the American Association of Museums awarded the Provincetown Art Association and Museum accreditation status.

As the Provincetown Art Association and Museum nears its centennial, it still holds firm in the traditions set forward in the early 1900s; from teaching white-line woodblock printmaking to exhibiting and collecting the work of the artist members, this small gem of a museum is poised to succeed well into the future. Its commitment to the continuation of the Provincetown art colony is unwavering. In the words of the artist Marcus Waterman, "Come on down to the end of the Cape, and see one of the most remarkable places in the country." [5]


1. Ada Gilmore Chaffee, "One Block Method Color Prints Had Their Origin in Provincetown," Provincetown Advocate, August 27, 1953.

2. Ibid.

3. William H. Young, Annual Report, Provincetown Art Association, 1926.

4. William H. Young, "Foreword," Provincetown Art Association Ninth Annual Exhibition Catalogue, 1923.

5. Marcus Waterman, ca. 1885, quoted by I. H. Caliga in an interview with Lawrence Dame, Boston Herald, August 11, 1914.

About the author

Christine McCarthy is Executive Director, Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on August 15, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle, Assistant Curator, and Claudia Thesing, Director of Development, of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy biographical information on selected artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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