“We are seeing unprecedented challenges in youth and art education,” says Tessa Bry Taylor, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum’s new curator of youth education. She took over the position last year from Lynn Stanley, who had tirelessly built up the program and received numerous awards and grants. Then Covid-19 hit. But Bry Taylor sees an upside: “There are enormous opportunities to be innovative and re-envision the broad picture of education in this country, and that doesn’t happen often.”
Most arts institutions on the Cape canceled their summer programs after the Covid-19 shutdown. But Bry Taylor put together youth classes and workshops that were online, then outdoors, and is working on a host of hybrid art opportunities for children and teens at PAAM in the coming school year.
“The current situation added a lot to my plate in terms of management and oversight,” Bry Taylor says. “I’m not just thinking about curriculum and lesson plans, but also health and safety, which is always a consideration, though very different when you’re dealing with a pandemic. I have to think not only of the kids and teachers but also their families, and that responsibility is heavy.”
Reviving in-person programs once restrictions were eased was tricky. “I realized that we have the capacity to put all necessary measures in place, like hand-washing stations and social distancing, and that we’re blessed with the space to go outside,” Bry Taylor says. “We held youth plein air classes right here in our sculpture garden and at the beach.”
She says that having to sit apart, wearing masks, did not deter the young artists from enjoying themselves. “The feedback I received was that they were thrilled to be here and that being in physical proximity to other young people made them feel better,” Bry Taylor says. “That was a testament to me that this is something we can and should do.”
Bry Taylor’s ability to adapt and innovate in the face of adversity is a thread that runs through her career. Born in Bismarck, N.D., she attended the University of Minnesota to study vocal performance and opera. When a significant vocal injury forced her to take a year-long break from singing, she found solace in the university’s theater department.
It was theater that first brought Bry Taylor to the Outer Cape, in 2005, when she and some college friends — Raphael Richter, Ben Berry, Elliot Eustis, and Eric Holm — started a theater company called Shakespeare on the Cape. “The company was immediately successful,” Bry Taylor says. “And, like many people, I was immediately in love with this place.”
After spending summers in Provincetown and working the rest of the year as an actor and producer in New York City, Bry Taylor found herself increasingly disillusioned with her life in the theater. She accepted a position as theater manager at the Provincetown Theater in the fall of 2006. “One of the things I really love about the Outer Cape,” she says, “is that anytime I felt stuck, this community produced opportunities. There is a lot of ‘go for it’ mentality here.”
Bry Taylor’s ties to the Outer Cape deepened when she married Nathaniel Taylor, who was the son of the late painter Noa Hall and grandson of Jack Hall, a painter and architect of the modernist Hatch House in Wellfleet. The couple met when they were both actors working at Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro.
It was at Payomet that Bry Taylor began to get involved in youth programming, sparking her interest in art education that led her to pursue a master’s in education at New York University and a Ph.D. at Lesley University. She co-founded (with Adam and Ben Berry) the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble in Provincetown, which puts on productions with aspiring young actors recruited from theater programs near and far. And, from 2014 to 2019, she worked at the education department at Boston’s Boch Center, as school programs manager and then associate director of education.
During those busy years, Bry Taylor’s two daughters, four-year-old Maeve and two-year-old Willa, were born, and her husband started his own Cape-based gardening business. The couple moved to the Cape full-time to raise their young family here.
When Bry Taylor saw that the position of curator of youth education at the PAAM was available, her only hesitation was that she didn’t have a visual arts background. “I realized quickly that at a base level, artistic expression, creativity, and education are grounded in the same philosophy and process, no matter what form or technique you are utilizing. The job description was exactly what I was already doing at the Boch Center, and with my husband being from a visual art-based family, many of whom were deeply involved at PAAM, it felt like coming full circle.”
Despite Covid, Bry Taylor remains dedicated to the goals she set for the next two years. “PAAM already has strong programming from age 10 to adult. My biggest commitments are to fill the gap for kids 10 and under, and to expand PAAM’s already existing program of teacher training for artists,” she says. “As Provincetown thinks about the next couple of decades, we are in a great space for artists living here on the Cape, of which there are many, and from all over the country, to engage in youth education.”