A riot of culture spills forth from that hook at the end of the Cape. Provincetown is like no other place, and it seems incapable of containing itself. It expands, like the ceremonial announcement of sweet and savory incense in a cathedral. I love it.
Yet, it’s like so many others.
Almost two years ago, a group of students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The field trip was a reward for their good grades and good behavior. They were all students of color in the sixth to eighth grades. One of the MFA exhibits that the students were viewing was titled “Gender Bending Fashion.”
What happened to them was all too predictable. They were profiled and followed from gallery to gallery by MFA guards. Racist comments, made both by other patrons and by MFA employees, were clearly heard by the students.
“This is mind-boggling,” said Marvelyne Lamy, a seventh-grade language arts teacher who chaperoned the trip, “that it’s 2019, and I can come into an establishment and my skin color speaks for me before I even get to walk in and introduce myself and say who I am.”
Top museum officials apologized and vowed to do better. Months later, the MFA invited students of color to curate a small exhibit of paintings, drawings, and photographs done by black and brown artists. I saw that exhibit. It was breathtaking. At the same time, it seemed but a mere gesture, too late and too feeble. It made me recall the words of Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be who you can’t see.”
At that show, I stopped before a particularly powerful piece and had the feeling that I had been there before. I looked at the signature. It was Allan Crite, the prolific black artist who died in 2007. I had the privilege of visiting Mr. Crite a number of times in his home in Boston’s South End. It was a museum, a gallery, although the humble Mr. Crite would never have described it as such. It was his home. On multiple floors the work poured out, small, evocative paintings of everyday street scenes and huge liturgical pieces worthy of a cathedral wall. How could we not know of Allan Crite?
After viewing the young black and brown curators’ exhibit, I drove through the South End and Dorchester, wondering about the number of black and brown artists represented in the galleries of Provincetown. A week later, I walked down off-season Commercial Street and wrote down the names of the galleries, almost 30 in all. I visited their websites and scrolled through the bios of the artists they represent. There were well over 100. I found two artists of color.
The class of 20 fellows at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) that winter was notable for its diversity. In June, a letter signed by more than 50 current and former FAWC fellows stated, “The governance and culture of the FAWC, as it currently stands, puts the well-being and livelihood of its Black, POC [people of color] and low-income fellows and participants in jeopardy, and does not serve the mission to which the Center aspires.”
When some of us lose, we all lose. If we do not see black and brown artists, will our children assume that black and brown people have no ability to make art? I fear that we will attempt to deny that this is a blatant example of structural racism in the midst of our “tolerant” Cape Cod community.
Or will our creative capacities expand and lead us to be who we aspire to be?
Dennis Cunningham lives in Wellfleet.