As housing has grown increasingly difficult to secure in Provincetown, so have art studios.
It’s not a recent problem. In 1992, the artist Joyce Johnson, a founder of the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, waxed nostalgic about Provincetown during the middle of the last century. “Making a living was not easy,” wrote Johnson, “but perhaps those were kinder days, when established proprietors took an almost fatherly attitude toward the young artists … allowing them to make studios and bedrooms in barely heated sheds and cottages.”
Historically, studio space has been important in facilitating creative community. The empty shacks and spare rooms of Provincetown fishermen provided space for artists to grow in a similar way that post-industrial centers in larger cities incubated artist communities. Artists have always followed the availability of studio space, transforming the communities they inhabit in the process, and the Outer Cape is no exception. Provincetown’s desirability as a place to visit and live in has roots in an identity developed by its artists.
The Provincetown Commons is one of several organizations working to maintain this identity. “We want to do something for people who want to build a life here,” says Pete Hocking, president of the board of the Commons. The Commons opened in a former school building on Bradford Street in 2019 “as a resource to support economic development, collaboration, and creative professionals in our community,” according to its website. In establishing their focus, the Commons organizers surveyed the creative community about their needs. To no one’s surprise, studio space was at the top of the list.
Currently, the Commons offers studio space to 10 artists. Priority is given to local emerging artists who do not have gallery representation.
Donna Pomponio was one of the first studio tenants at the Commons in 2019. After relocating from Boston, where she had a studio, she painted in her apartment at first. Pomponio paints portraits and images inspired by literature, including a series of paintings based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
“I always had a desire to paint large” she says — and her space at the Commons allowed her to do just that.
Pomponio moved out of her studio this past fall after three years, which is the maximum amount of time an artist can stay there. While there, she worked in a shared space with other artists. “Ideas stew being in the same room with people,” says Pomponio. “I found a community.”
Paul Rizzo was one of the artists who worked alongside Pomponio. Rizzo moved to Provincetown shortly after finishing art school and spent eight years without a dedicated work space. “I didn’t really think about the fact that I didn’t have a studio,” says Rizzo. “But I would lose track of projects so easily. Everything would be under my bed or in my closet or piled up.”
Hocking, who works with Rizzo at Four Eleven Gallery where both show their art, recognizes how having a studio affected Rizzo’s work. “Having that space allowed Paul to be a more consistent maker,” he says. “He is exactly the kind of artist I hoped the Commons could support: someone who wants to build a life here, and a brilliant maker who is still figuring out who he is as an artist.”
Studios at the Commons are allotted through an application process and rented at $350 a month. “We keep the fee affordable,” says Jill Stauffer, the executive director. “If people have a problem paying that, we’re happy to have a conversation with them,” she adds, noting that a sliding fee scale is available for those in need. Artists are required to use the studio for at least 15 hours a week.
Along with studio space, the Commons provides programming and other services for artists, including classes on financial planning, studio visits, and exhibition space. “It’s about exposure,” says Dave LaFrance, who serves as the Commons’ operations and community manager. “The Commons is an economic development center for the arts and small businesses.”
The exhibition spaces at the Commons show works from other artists in addition to the ones who have studios there. “We want to make it a place where emerging artists can connect with galleries and build a sustainable practice,” says Hocking. The organization charges $250 to rent gallery spaces for two weeks and takes no commission on sales. “Last year around $100,000 worth of art was sold,” says Hocking. “If you want artists to have sustainable lives, it matters if we can sell a couple of paintings.”
Pomponio and Rizzo found studio spaces after leaving the Commons, although their arrangements remain tentative: Pomponio is subletting a shared space on Conwell Street and has rented a storage space for her artwork and materials, and Rizzo is renting a shared space from a friend. Both artists are on lists for more permanent solutions, including space in studios on Conwell Street developed by Ted Malone and Patrick Studios, which are owned by the Provincetown real estate development company Shank Painter Associates. Pomponio estimates that she’s been on both lists for a year and a half. There are also studio spaces upstairs at the Provincetown Post Office, although Pomponio says that’s an even more remote possibility. “I don’t think anyone’s left there forever,” she says.
Stauffer says that lack of turnover is an issue and is the reason why the Commons instituted a time limit on its studios. “When we put out a survey, people responded that they didn’t want a studio solution like the post office,” she says. “Some people get in there and no one else gets a chance. We want to serve as many people in the community as possible.” Stauffer says the Commons currently has about five people on its waitlist for studios and that it may take a year for the next spot to open up.
Fran O’Neill and Tessera Knowles-Thompson are two artists who recently moved into the Commons. “Finding a studio in Provincetown is very hard,” says Knowles-Thompson, who moved to Provincetown in 2015. “I’ve always been in someone else’s space. Once I rented the corner of someone else’s studio. Another time I worked in a friend’s office. Typically my work is hidden away in portfolios. It has been a revelation to have blank walls.” Her walls are covered with quiet landscape paintings, and at her desk she moves between working on her own artwork and landscape designs for clients.
Across the room, Fran O’Neill is working on a series of abstract paintings with simple shapes that recall the mobiles of Alexander Calder. “I start with a frame and then have wood cut to fit the frame,” he says. “I’m taking shapes that are similar to each other and combining them into designs.” After arriving at a composition, O’Neill uses oil-based stains to add color while preserving the grain of the wood. “The last time I was able to do this, a friend sublet her studio to me,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to do this out of my apartment. There’s no way.”
Along with space constrictions, artists also encounter time limitations and the demands of a day job. O’Neill (who works seasonally at Bagel Hound in Wellfleet) and Knowles-Thompson both find more time for their art in the winter. Although Knowles-Thompson got a studio last spring, she gave it up temporarily over the summer, which is her busy time as a landscape designer. O’Neill says he’ll probably allow someone else to use his space this summer when he goes back to work.
And so the see-sawing continues as artists move in and out of the Commons, navigating between jobs and temporary spaces to make art in a place where time and space are at a premium. For its part, the Commons is striving to match the resilience and flexibility of its artists — but the long-term solution isn’t simple.
“We want people to rotate out every three years,” says Hocking. “But it’s raising a problem with our model. There just aren’t enough studio spaces in town for them to rent. How do we find more space?”