Revitalizing Provincetown With a New Arts Centre

The Mary Heaton Vorse house in the artistic Provincetown, just outside of Cape Cod, Massachusetts used to be the summer abode of New York’s literary set in the 1916’s.

This 18th-century eight-bedroom house was for “free love and communism”, said Ken Fulk, who had bought the house for $1.17 million and subsequently spent $1.25 million more to restore its interiors and open its doors to the public as one of New England’s art centers in hopes to renew Provincetown’s cultural vitality and reconnect it to the younger generations of artists, reported Brett Sokol of The New York Times.

The backyard of Mary Heaton Vorse’s home restored by interior designer Ken Fulk to serve as an arts center. The flag, “Ryan’s Rainbow” was created for the home by photographer Ryan McGinley. Copyright image by Tony Luong for The New York Times.

“I grew up loving historical homes and the patina of time, understanding that true imperfections have a place,” explained the interior designer who has a national reputation of fusing his historical passion with theatricality. Not devoid of gentrification pressures, Fulk set his sight on Provincetown to restore the “quirkiness” and “eccentricity” of the place which, according to him, will “never be the Hamptons”. At the service of four local organizations— the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the Provincetown Theatre, the Provincetown Film Society, and Twenty Summers, the Vorse home will hold public lectures, fund-raisers, and host live-in artists during the summers when the population of the town increases from about 3,000 to 60,000, during which arts organizations struggle to house people, explained Fulk. “Now we have a house with eight bedrooms!”, he added.

Interior designer and restorer of Mary Heaton Vorse home, Ken Fulk. Copyright image by Tony Luong for The New York Times

However, the Coronavirus pandemic has posed problems to a town economically dependent on its summer tourism while the pace of reopening still remains undecided. While Provincetown Theatre and Twenty Summers have postponed their summer programs, the Provincetown Film Society has had to reschedule its annual film festival and shutter its movie theater alongside having laid-off its entire full-time staff. But Fulk believes that “the need this summer is going to be more profound, not less,” even if they don’t have a packed house after the opening. Fulk is also focusing on an August fund-raising “spaced lawn party”— honoring playwright Charles Busch— for the Provincetown Theatre.

The exterior of the Mary Heaton Vorse house in Provincetown. Copyright image by Tony Luong for The New York Times

Additionally, Fulk is going ahead with the opening of an art exhibition inside the Vorse house in July “at whatever capacity is allowed, even if it’s just one person at a time”. The exhibition, Intimate Companions, curated by Joe Sheftel will feature a total of fifty artworks by thirty-six artists who have a Provincetown connection, each “exploring queer culture and the distinct sense of the place embodied by the town itself”, explained The New York Times reporter, Sokol.

Artwork “To a Happier Year” by Peter McGough and sculpture “Abambowa” by Leilah Babirye for “Intimate Companions”— the Vorse home’s debut art exhibition. Copyright image by Tony Luong for The New York Times

More artworks for “Intimate Companions”: from left to right, a 2020 artwork by John Dowd; “Blue Self-Portrait” by Tabboo! from 1982; “Kneeling and Standing” by Hugh Steers from 1987. Copyright image by Tony Luong for The New York Times

Co-founder of Twenty Summers and New York City-based author, Joshua Prager, recalled a dinner hosted by Fulk, which had single-handedly raised $150,000 for his event series (three years’ worth of Twenty Summers’ budget). Prager acknowledged the dread many artists feel with prominent names moving into the town and sky-rocketing rents with no significant boost to the town’s art market. “If you look at the history of Provincetown,” he said, “it has been reinventing itself for a century.”

Recalling past gatherings in local painter John Dowd’s home, Fulk stated, “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.” While Dowd had been uncertain about Provincetown’s future and appreciated the restoration of the Vorse home by Fulk, he is doubtful that the efforts will be self-defeating – “It’s a double-edged sword, trying to make things look more historically authentic,” he explained. According to Dowd, a member of the town’s Historic District Commission, the more historical places like the Vorse home is restored, the more it hinders a living and working community because the money comes in from people who have it and take it away from people who created it.

Artist and member of Provincetown’s Historic District Commission, John Dowd. Copyright image by Tony Luong for The New York Times

 

Dowd stressed what Provincetown and its artists really needed were low-budget studios and cheap rent. He wondered whether it was too late for efforts such as non-profit co-working spaces when today’s art school graduates end up bypassing Provincetown altogether – “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 explained. “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.” “It’s a little bit of a folly that we’re doing this, but it’s utterly Provincetown to me”, admitted Fulk. “There’s still drag queens in the street – but now they have masks on”, he added, insisting that the town endured its ‘offbeat essence’ even in the face of a pandemic.

 

 

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Fragmented reveries, scribbled quotes in foreign languages, ink-stained fingers, and cautious doodles in my journal; I believe in "nihil sub sole novum" —there is nothing new under the sun— so I write to better what exists.

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