Creativity and Community at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum

The name of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM) hints at three aspects of its mission—as a professional association of artists, a creator of educational classes and programs, and a collector of works by artists who have worked and lived on Cape Cod. Founded in the early 20th century by artists who were part of Provincetown’s influential art colony, PAAM now owns 4,000 works by more than 800 artists, making it a rich resource for the local community and for all who visit. Open year-round, this cultural anchor offers rotating exhibitions, shows of art by the current artist members, an art school, and cultural events. A visit is a terrific way to connect to today’s artistic community on Cape Cod and to a history that began in 1899 when artist Charles W. Hawthorne (1872–1930) established his Cape Cod School of Art, setting up an easel on a Provincetown beach as his students watched.     

Growth of an Art Colony and Museum  

In the late 19th century, many artists in Europe and America sought beautiful places away from cities to paint, including plein-air work. Hawthorne, who had studied with William Merritt Chase, found the special light, stunning beaches and dunes, and open skies in Provincetown, on the tip of the remote Outer Cape, appealing for his portraits and landscapes. His school soon attracted students and other painters, who flocked to the picturesque fishing town. (Writers including Eugene O’Neill followed, adding to Provincetown’s bohemian atmosphere.) In 1914, Hawthorne, four other artists, and local businesspeople established what was then called the Provincetown Art Association. By 1915, artists had donated works, and the association was mounting juried shows by local artists, beginning a long tradition. The constant presence of artists in the area makes Provincetown the country’s oldest continuous art colony. 

The artists who have lived or worked in Provincetown and the area over the decades represent many different movements in American art. Artists who came from the Impressionist movement founded PAAM, but eventually the work of more modernist painters was accepted. Blanche Lazzell, who innovated with white-line woodcuts, and Ross Moffett were two of these. Hans Hofmann came from Europe and opened an influential summer art school in Provincetown that operated from 1935 to 1958. It inspired modernist and Abstract Expressionist painters such as Fritz Bultman, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella. In addition, Robert Motherwell and Milton Avery are among the many artists who have painted memorable works on Cape Cod. 

For almost four decades, Edward and Josephine Hopper spent summers in nearby Truro and painted Cape Cod. In 2016, PAAM received a major Hopper gift: 96 drawings by Edward Hopper, 69 drawings and watercolors by Josephine Hopper, and 24 diaries.   

Through artistic changes, economic ups and downs, and the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, PAAM has supported artists and collected their work. In 1977, the Provincetown Art Association officially made “museum” part of its name, and in 2005, a modern building with gallery spaces and studios was added to the existing facility, doubling its size. Today 13,000 people visit PAAM annually, and Provincetown’s more than 50 art galleries and other art organizations (in a town with a year-round population of about 3,500) attest to the area’s continuing artistic vibrancy.   

Exploring PAAM

PAAM has five constantly changing galleries that present more than two dozen exhibitions each year, featuring a mixture of styles, artists, and time periods. There’s always something new to discover in the intimate, well-lighted spaces, including art from PAAM’s artist members and historic works from the permanent collection. A look at some 2022 shows includes representative exhibitions.

The Helen and Napi Van Dereck Collection: Part IV (August 12–October 30, 2022) focuses on more than 40 works from a private collection of almost 300. The art, collected over many decades, depicts some of Provincetown’s most famous places and views. (The longtime restaurant Napi’s is filled with art collected by Napi Van Dereck, too.) Works in Out of the Blue: Cyanotypes by Midge Battelle, Rebecca Bruyn, and Amy Heller (August 26–November 13, 2022) link the 19th-century process of cyanotype photography, which produces a blue print, with 21st-century approaches that encompass digital images, fabric, and motors. Edith Lake Wilkinson (on view through August 21, 2022) explores the work of this less-known white-line printmaker (1868–1957), who spent time in Provincetown.  

The popular annual Members’ 12×12 Exhibition and Silent Auction (August 5–September 25, 2022) displays work by PAAM’s current artist members in a museum fundraiser, with proceeds split between the artist and PAAM. All works are 12 inches by 12 inches, and it’s fun to peruse the assorted styles and subjects. Online bidding starts at $125, making this a wonderful opportunity to support local artists and the museum.   

Classes, Community, and Culture 

Students of all ages and levels can participate in PAAM’s Lillian Orlowsky and Willian Freed Museum School, with classes that cover subjects and mediums including art appreciation, drawing, sculpture, photography, and printmaking. Teachers are local and national artists. The school also has open studio Life Drawing sessions twice a week. 

Among the many offerings for young people is the free, award-winning Art Reach program for different ages, offered one or two days a week for two semesters. Students use the museum’s studios to create art independently and collaboratively. The Little Artists program is for kids from 18 months to 9 years old. The Reaching Forward Mentor Program, a work-based employment programs for students 16 and older, helps those who want to develop skills as peer leaders and teaching artists; the student mentors work with Art Reach, Little Artists, and community workshops. In addition, educators can arrange gallery tours and art-making experiences for students at an affordable cost.  

Events such as summer jazz concerts, in-person and online talks, and exhibition opening parties—some with the artist present—round out PAAM’s many activities. 

Side Dish

A waterfront staple since 2001, Fanizzi’s draws locals and visitors to Provincetown’s East End year-round with its welcoming vibe and delicious seafood, salads, and burgers—not to mention 180-degree views of Provincetown Harbor and Cape Cod Bay. Choices range from vegetable burgers to fried clam rolls, and the bar is perfect for a beer or cocktail and appetizers. There’s alfresco dining in season. Right opposite PAAM, gourmet market Angel Foods sells delicious sandwiches (call ahead to order) and salads, with vegetarian and vegan options. It’s a top takeout pick for those planning to eat by the harbor or beach. 

Linda Cabasin is a travel editor and writer who covered the globe at Fodor’s before taking up the freelance life. She has visited Cape Cod regularly since 1995. She’s a contributing editor at Fathom. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @lcabasin.


Top photo: PAAM’s five well-lighted galleries provide an attractive space for changing exhibitions year-round. Photo by Anton Grassi, courtesy of Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

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