Arts under pressure on Cape Cod

William M. Dowd photos

ORLEANS, MA -- The arts scene is as much part of the soul of Cape Cod as are its fishing fleets and sprawling beaches.

However, a bit of soul-searching unveils an insidious problem: The nationwide economic downturn coupled with the rising cost of living often inherent in a tourist haven is hurting established artists and scaring off the next generation of them.

From Sandwich, the first town a landlubber hits after leaving the mainland, to sandwiches at the iconic Portugese Bakery 75 miles away in Provincetown, there is no lack of creativity anywhere along this storied jut of land that extends from the lowlands of eastern Massachusetts into the stormy Atlantic.

P-town, as it is locally called, got its first formal hold on the arts world more than a century ago when painter Charles W. Hawthorne (1872-1930) established the first summer arts colony in the United States. That helped make the small fishing village a worldwide arts icon by the 1930s, with such painters as Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell summering there.

Eugene O'Neill was involved with the Provincetown Players beginning in 1916 and wrote many of his earliest plays there. Best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark today maintains a home on the Cape. The likes of Bette Davis (Cape Playhouse in Dennis) and James Stewart (Falmouth Playhouse) got some of their early acting training locally.

But economics are chipping away at this heritage. Beginning artists are shying away from the pricey Cape to ply their work elswehere, perhaps in hopes of making an affordable somewhere else "the next Cape.''

"You can still make some money in the arts,'' said Joe Realbuto, a professional photographer who moved here from the Albany, NY, area a decade ago, "but the cost of living has gotten so high it really makes it a slim margin. It's scaring off a lot of younger artists who might otherwise have come here, especially if they don't have other means of income.''

Kely Knowles, a 20-year Cape resident who is well known as both a watercolorist and teacher, agrees.

"At arts meetings I attend I rarely see anyone who isn't in my age group, 50 and up,'' she said. "Maybe a couple of 40s, a rare one in their 30s.''

Realbuto, a board member and past vice president of the Artisans' Guild of Cape Cod, said the organization is considering changing its membership requirements to accept non-Cape residents to keep the organization viable.

Visitors may not immediately see a falloff in arts offerings. As a community, Cape Cod today has a huge investment in the arts with more than 300 galleries -- including the Cape Cod Museum of Art (top photo) in Dennis -- devoted to paintings, sculptures, glasswork, wood- and metal-craft, handicrafts, pottery and photography studios, art museums and community arts organizations whose periodic shows pepper the local social schedule.

Venues for theater, writing workshops, dance and the whole range of music from classical orchestral works to Irish pubs also abound, especially during the main tourist season from Memorial Day to the Labor Day weekend. Hands-on classes in many fields are available to residents and visitors alike. As just one example, the Truro Center for the Arts near Wellfleet offers arts and crafts lessons for adults and children. Other facilities cater to summer visitors anxious to dabble in the creative world.

The laid-back atmosphere of much of the Cape, the range of natural light affected by the flat horizons and light from both the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay, and the rough beauty of the salt marshes, dunes, beaches and rocky shores remain a powerful lure for artists of all stripes to spend time here. In some cases, that time stretches to permanent residency.

Realbuto is a prime example. A decade ago, he and his family, longtime Cape visitors, moved to Pocasset on the Outer Cape as fulltime residents. While he still makes his living as an executive in the field of health care for the disabled, the move enabled him to embrace his passion.

"I'd been a photographer most of my life, and I always knew I would come to the Cape to be an artist,'' Realbuto said. "You can't find the beaches and this light anywhere else.

"Sometimes when I get that light, that incredible light, I just jump up and down,'' he said with a chuckle.

Realbuto has gotten heavily involved in the arts scene as a businessman with interests in several galleries and as a volunteer with the Artisans' Guild. The group acts to promote professional standards and growth, schedules professional arts events and awards scholarships. In fact, when the Guild needed a new logo, brochure and various other materials put together earlier this year, 30 graphic art students from Cape Cod Regional Technical High School submitted their ideas. Senior Ben Hughes, 18, of Dennisport won the contract.

That's just one example of real-world commercial success for the students, the next generation of local artists. Support from the Guild, the school and individual artists has helped nurture the small surge.

Adding up his fulltime work, his volunteer efforts and the time spent involved in digital photography and shows seems to come to more hours than there are in a day.

"I spend anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week just shooting before the season because I like to add five to seven new images to my offerings every year.'' Realbuto said.

"Most people who are at the level I am in pursuing their art are semi-retired, so they have the time to do it. But, if you have the passion you can make the time.''

Knowles is another such passionate artist. She has owned the Rock Harbor Gallery in Orleans since 1995. She credits her husband, David Knowles, with helping make her endeavors work. Besides being an artist himself, he's a flooring contractor and a skilled builder who constructed her gallery.

"I'd love to be involved with other galleries as well,'' she said, "but there's not enough time to do that and run this place and find time to paint. Plus, I'm still teaching and teaching keeps me above water.

"To make things work financially, you have to do a lot of marketing, too. I know a lot of the younger artists don't know how to do that very well, and that hurts their chances to succeed.''

Nevertheless, there remain many persistent artists of all sorts on the Cape, perhaps laboring under the same mantra expressed by the late French writer/philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus (1913-1960) who said, "It's not the struggle that makes us artists, but Art that makes us struggle.''

Cape Cod Museum of Art
Cultural Center of Cape Cod
Cape Cod Writers Center
Arts Foundation of Cape Cod
Cape Cod Dining Guide
A Chowder of Attractions
Dowd's Guides

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