With the addition of the Alvin Ross Wing in 2005, the facade of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum now expresses almost perfectly the strong undercurrent of creative tension — between traditionalism and (moderate) modernism — that has long vitalized this institution. With expansive glass walls, the new ground-floor gallery reaches out to the community; a deliberate gesture by the architects, Machado and Silvetti Associates of Boston. The addition, which roughly doubled PAAM’s size, is a lesson in urbanism: contextually appropriate architecture doesn’t have to be imitative. Instead, the new wing, clad in cedar shingles and louvers, keeps a deferential distance, spatially and aesthetically, from the old Ephraim Cook house, to which it is joined.
Given the growth of the art colony in the early 20th century, it was almost inevitable that some kind of organization would emerge to serve — or try to serve — as its nucleus. Despite its name, the association was not founded in 1914 as a fraternal group of Bohemians. Rather, in its first years, it was very much a civic organization; concerned more with promoting the interests and image of Provincetown than in advancing the cause of artistic expression and experimentation. Notably, its first president was not an artist at all, but the president of the Seamen’s Savings Bank, William H. Young. He was also founder of what is now [?] the Benson Young & Downs Insurance Agency, president of the Board of Trade, chairman of the Provincetown Tercentary Committee and master of King Hiram’s Lodge. He lived at 10 Carver Street. His wife, Anna (Hughes) Young, was also immersed in civic affairs and organizations. She served as the first treasurer of the association.
Under Young, the original three vice presidents of the Provincetown Art Association were Charles W. Hawthorne, E. Ambrose Webster and William F. Halsall. Given Hawthorne’s preeminence, his participation would have been mandatory for any arts organization to succeed. Not only did he serve as an officer early on, he also donated one of the first five works in PAAM’s permanent collection, Provincetown Fishermen. Among his other works in the collection is His First Voyage, an almost Rockwellian (Rockwellish?) scene of a mother fussing over her young fisherman’s outfit as he stares expectantly, and a bit nervously, at the viewer.
As an embryonic group, the art association had no permanent home at first, but moved around like a kind of institutional hermit crab to whatever venues suited a given program. Its first exhibition, in 1915, was conducted at Town Hall. According to the catalog, 143 works were shown, including the five paintings composing the permanent collection, by Hawthorne, Webster, Halsall, Oscar H. Gieberich and Gerrit A. Beneker. Other artists displayed at Town Hall from 3 July to 15 September included Edwin W. Dickinson (his three paintings were titled Grey Day, Grey Day and Grey Day), Agnes Weinrich, Tod Lindenmuth, Oliver N. Chaffee, Mary Cole Chaffee and Ada Gilmore.
In 1919, acknowledging a need for its own headquarters and gallery, the association purchased the Solomon Bangs house — Solomon’s Temple — at 454-456 Commercial Street, on the corner of Bangs Street. It paid $2,000. Two years later, for $3,000, it purchased this property, originally the home of Ephraim Cook and more recently of William Bangs, which Mary Heaton Vorse said “had degenerated into a two-family tenement.” The association tore down the corner property and rehabilitated the Cook-Bangs house as a gallery in time for its 1921 exhibition. There is apparently no record of the architect — if any — but the work was done by Frank A. Days & Sons.
With its growing clout and influence, the association found itself claimed both by the traditionalists — many of them working in the Impressionist style; hackneyed, perhaps, but comfortable, familiar and popular — and by the modernists, who found themselves drawn to Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism and Futurism. The animosity between the groups was so warm that they could not reconcile themselves to a single show. As a result, there were separate modern and traditional exhibitions from 1927 until 1937. (We would probably be hard-pressed today to see too much of a difference between them.) In the midst of this schismatic period, there was at least agreement on the need for more space, leading to the construction, from 1929 to 1930, of the Little Gallery, on the east side of the main structure.
Within the decade, the need for even more gallery space was evident. The association took up this building project as a memorial to Hawthorne, who had died in 1930. As envisioned, the new gallery — a westward expansion of the Cook-Bangs house into the lot once occupied by Solomon’s Temple — was to be 25 by 50 feet in plan (1,250 square feet) under a hip roof. A gabled roof was substituted. Fundraising began in earnest in 1938. Frank A. Days & Sons were once again the builders. Although the United States entered World War II less than a month after construction began, in November 1941, the project continued until the gallery was ready for its first exhibition, in July 1942, of 12 works by Hawthorne. All in, the construction cost $4,144.37, according to Ross Moffett.
Dr. Carl Murchison, president of the art association and builder of the Murchison House at 2 Commercial Street, oversaw the next significant construction project, in 1960. This involved a northward expansion of the Cook-Bangs house with an imposing, column-free, 30-by-60-foot (1,800 square foot) gallery, a large store room, library and meeting room. Jean Kaselau of North Truro won the building contract. For many years, this addition was called the Carl Murchison Gallery, but it was renamed [?] in recent years to commemorate the artist Hans Hofmann.
Does our story so far give a hint what comes next? Just seven years later, the art association was out of space again. Fred Tasch, the director, and the artists Salvatore Del Deo, John “Jack” Kearney and Josiah H. Child began working with the Architects Design Group of Boston, collaborators with Philip Johnson on the new Boston Public Library. This was to have taken the place of the Hawthorne Memorial Gallery, but the project did not materialize. That isn’t to say the need hadn’t abated.
By the late 1990s, the association was straining again. In 1978 [?], it changed its name formally to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum — as good an indication as any of what was lacking. Having started 80 years earlier with five paintings in its permanent collection, the association had almost 2,000 artworks, and not nearly enough space to store them properly. Designed principally as a seasonal building, it was operating year-round, but not at all comfortably. Its cramped and antiquated physical plant was also starting to limit visiting shows, because PAAM could not guarantee ideal conditions for artworks on loan.
In August 2003, the president, Robert Henry, and the executive director, Chris McCarthy, announced a $5 million expansion project designed, as The Banner put it, “to keep pace with its growing collections, shows and community presence. (Christine Frisco, “PAAM Rolls Out Expansion Plans,” The Banner, 7 August 2003.) The first phase of the project, in 2004, involved the restoration of the Cook-Bangs residence, including a reconfiguration permitting its ground floor — formerly used as a reception area and gift shop — to be transformed into the new Ross Moffett Gallery. Phase 2, from 2004 to 2005, was the much more ambitious project of demolition, excavation and construction on the corner lot. Essentially, the 1942 Hawthorne annex was replaced by a new building with greatly inscreased storage space, two new galleries, a new gift shop and reception area, and new second-floor studios for the art school.
Not everyone was won over by Machado & Silvetti’s modernist approach. By no means. George Bryant, the most knowledgeable expert on Provincetown’s historical architecture and the dean of its many civic gadflies, also happened to live across the street. “The building they have designed is a blockbuster that just doesn’t go with anything in the neighborhood, in scale and detail,” he said. (Mary Ann Bragg, “PAAM Plans Criticized,” The Banner, 28 August 2003.)
“We had no choice,” McCarthy said as the new building, known officially as the Alvin Ross Wing, was readied for opening. Without the addition, she said, the museum “would have fallen down or it would have closed.” (Ann Wood and Kaimi Rose Lum, “A Week From Opening, PAAM Is Ready for Kudos and Criticism,” The Banner, 3 November 2005.)