Squint and it could still be 1916. On a walk through Provincetown’s East End one recent Friday evening, the brick sidewalks, unruly rosebushes, gray shingle-lined cottages, and streets barely big enough for a horse-driven carriage recalled an earlier era. Even more pleasantly jarring were the throngs of artgoers flowing in and out of dozens of galleries nestled along the water’s edge here at the tip of Cape Cod. The mood still evokes the setting of 100 years ago, when Provincetown established its reputation as the nation’s largest art colony.
The centennial is cause for celebration and Provincetown has been filled with commemorative exhibitions. Some focus on the transformative summer of 1916, when Europe was engulfed in World War I and New Yorkers who might have otherwise decamped to the Left Bank of Paris instead headed here, drawn by the legendarily brilliant light and the spectacular dunes, as well as the heady cultural mix. The playwright Eugene O’Neill, the writers Jack Reed and Louise Bryant and the painter Marsden Hartley were among the new arrivals, adding to a milieu already filled with hundreds of artists studying with the portraitist Charles Hawthorne or at four other competing art schools.
This migration pattern endures. Provincetown’s galleries are packed during July and August, when the town’s population swells to more than 60,000, from about 3,000. New York artists of all stripes remain thick on the ground alongside the local talent, from the filmmaker John Waters, who curated his favorites in a gleefully tasteless group show at the Albert Merola Gallery, to the poet Eileen Myles, who departs from her traditional prose with a playful installation of her personal memos at the AMP gallery and her photography at the Schoolhouse Gallery.