Can a New Arts Center Revitalize Provincetown?


PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — There was only one destination of choice for the literary set looking to leave New York City during the sweltering summer of 1916: Provincetown, at the outermost tip of Cape Cod. Once there, writers like John Reed and Louise Bryant, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, and an assorted cast of Greenwich Village radicals all converged on the sprawling 18th-century, eight-bedroom home of Mary Heaton Vorse, a celebrated labor reporter and the grande dame of the avant-garde. The goal of those heady salons? “Free love and communism!” quipped Ken Fulk, the new owner of the Vorse house.

Yet rather than flipping the home after his $1.17 million purchase, or dividing it into condos — the fate of so many other antique buildings in this town where nearly 75 percent of the homes are now second homes or owned by investors — he has spent $1.25 million more to meticulously restore its interiors to that 1916 moment and open it to the public on July 2 as one of New England’s newest arts centers. Mr. Fulk hopes his move will help shore up Provincetown’s fraying cultural vitality and reconnect it to younger generations of artists who have been priced out.

“I grew up loving historical homes and the patina of time, understanding that true imperfections have a place,” explained Mr. Fulk, an interior designer who divides his time between San Francisco and Provincetown. Already living with his husband, Kurt Wootton, across the street from the Vorse home, Mr. Fulk viewed restoring its dilapidated state as an irresistible challenge. He has gained a national reputation — and a devoted clientele who reportedly pay seven-figure sums for his handiwork — by fusing an over-the-top theatricality with a passion for the historical. Now he’s setting his sights on Provincetown, whose longstanding art colony sees itself under siege from many of the same gentrifying financial pressures as the Bay Area. “Quirkiness, eccentricity, is what Provincetown is all about and it’s one of the great attributes that drew me here,” he said. “This place will never be the Hamptons.”

Mr. Fulk is putting the Vorse home at the service of four local organizations — the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the Provincetown Film Society, the Provincetown Theater, and Twenty Summers, an annual concert and event series. It will include space for public lectures, fund-raisers, and most crucially, live-in artist residencies during the summer months when the population balloons to more than 60,000, from about 3,000. Artists and longtime residents have been left to scramble for affordable housing. “Arts organizations here always struggle over where to house folks,” Mr. Fulk explained, adding, “Now we have a house with eight bedrooms!”

The pandemic complicates that equation. Provincetown, like so many other places economically dependent on summer tourism, remains conflicted over the pace of reopening as a second wave of Covid-19 looms. With a townwide ban on indoor entertainment, Twenty Summers and the Provincetown Theater postponed their seasonal programs, while the Provincetown Film Society — forced to reschedule its annual film festival and shutter its year-round movie theater — recently announced the layoff of its entire full-time staff, including the C.E.O.

“We may not have a packed house, but the need this summer is going to be more profound, not less,” explained Mr. Fulk of the Vorse home’s opening. To that end he’s pressing ahead with an August fund-raising dinner for the Provincetown Theater honoring the playwright Charles Busch — though it’s now recast as a “spaced lawn party.”

Mr. Fulk said he is also going forward with the July opening of an art exhibition inside the home “at whatever capacity is allowed, even if it’s just one person at a time.” The show, “Intimate Companions,” curated by Joe Sheftel, features 50 figurative works by 36 artists with a Provincetown connection, each exploring queer culture and the distinct sense of place embodied by the town itself — from the painter Paul Cadmus, a mainstay in the late 1940s, to more recent visitors including the painters Jen Bradley and Jenna Gribbon. A five-by-eight-foot flag created by the photographer Ryan McGinley has been mounted on a 30-foot-high pole.

Joshua Prager, a New York City-based author and co-founder of Twenty Summers, recalled that a dinner gathering at Mr. Fulk’s home raised $150,000 for his event series — three years’ worth of its budget in one single evening. While Mr. Prager didn’t discount the sense of dread that many artists feel as more and more prominent names move into town, sending rents soaring without any boost to the regional art market, he took the long view. “What separates Provincetown from the Hamptons is a lot more than just money,” he said. “It’s an informal space here. People’s shirts are open, or they aren’t wearing shirts at all.”

“If you look at the history of Provincetown,” Mr. Prager continued, “it has been reinventing itself for a century.”

Mr. Fulk pointed to past gatherings at the home of John Dowd, a local painter with a Hopperesque style and a kindred passion for historical architecture. Just as in 1916, “If you go to his house for a party, you’ll see half the town there: fishermen and drag queens, Pulitzer Prize winners and ex-cons.”

For his part, Mr. Dowd was more ambivalent about the future of the art colony. While he applauded Mr. Fulk’s restoration of the Vorse home, he feared that such efforts were ultimately self-defeating.

“Have I been doing the devil’s work in trying to make it look a certain way here?” mused Mr. Dowd, a member of Provincetown’s Historic District Commission, who has spent years fighting the wholesale gutting of historic buildings. “It’s a double-edged sword, trying to make things look more historically authentic,” he explained. “The more you make it like that, the more it hastens its demise as a living, working, thriving community. Because the money sweeps in from people who see the cachet in a pretty place to play, and it’s taken away from the people who created it in the first place.”

  • Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

What Provincetown’s artists really needed, he stressed, was cheap rent and low-budget studios. While there have been some fledgling efforts, including the Commons, a new nonprofit co-working space, Mr. Dowd wondered if it was too little and too late. Today’s art school graduates simply bypass Provincetown altogether, he noted, leaving the art colony to essentially age into extinction. “If you want to have a thriving art scene, you need youth, you need places for them to paint, and you need places for them to live,” he added, noting Provincetown’s dire shortage of these very elements. “There are no easy answers, but if people are going to do million-dollar fund-raisers, the focus should be a little more on that.”

Erika Wastrom, a painter of beguiling portraits who graduated from Boston University’s M.F.A. program in 2012, would appear to be part of the local artistic continuum: She grew up as a 13th-generation Cape Codder, studying art with the well-known Provincetown figures Jim Peters and Vicky Tomayko, each of whom moved to Provincetown in the mid-80s as fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center and then stuck around. Ms. Wastrom’s own work is now exhibited at Provincetown’s GAA Gallery. “I love being part of a place that has a special relationship to painting,” she said with a mournful laugh, “except that I’m not part of that place.” Ms. Wastrom lives a good hour south of Provincetown in Barnstable — where homes are far more affordable, especially for someone starting a family. But raising two kids while teaching full time, and still cramming in regular studio sessions, doesn’t leave much time for driving up to Provincetown to be a part of its creative community.

Many of Ms. Wastrom’s fellow Boston University grads headed straight for New York City. To them, “Provincetown is a place from the past,” she said. But New York and what she deemed its artistic “cookie-cutter molds” held little appeal for her. That left two options: “I could try to be an adjunct at some random university in Idaho. Or I could move back to a place that’s inspiring to me and try to make work — and a living — there,” she explained. “I’m not a landscape painter. But I am interested in color. And that part of the day when the light starts to disappear? There’s no color like that anywhere else.”

That makes perfect sense to Mr. Fulk. “There’s something magical about this crazy little sliver of sand,” he said, citing a passage from Mary Vorse’s 1942 memoir “Time and the Town,” where she speaks of the “cosmic quality” of setting down her writing and taking daily hikes through the woods to hidden ponds, or across the dunes to gaze out at the Atlantic Ocean. “I knew that I would never be quite so happy again,” she wrote. “I had recaptured the happiness I had as a girl, and yet I had the freedom of a woman. I had my house and my children, and yet I had the gaiety that comes only, as a rule, with the irresponsibility of youth.”

And the transformation of the Vorse house? “It’s a little bit of a folly that we’re doing this,” Mr. Fulk said. “But it’s utterly Provincetown to me.” The town’s offbeat essence endured, he insisted, even in the face of this summer’s challenges: “There’s still drag queens in the street — but now they have masks on.”

Source link

Choose your Reaction!
Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.