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The Arts in Community: Lesley Marchessault at the Provincetown Commons

Photo: Lynn Stanley

by Lynn Stanley

Some of us can pinpoint the moment when our world view opens up and we know exactly what we want to do with our lives. For Lesley Marchessault, the new executive director at the Provincetown Commons, that moment occurred in a middle school classroom in Tallahassee, Florida. “I can remember sitting in the dark, in my seventh grade humanities class, looking at images of works of art. This was pre-digital media,” she laughs, “and I can still hear the hum of that overhead projector. Half the kids were distracted or falling asleep, but I was on the edge of my seat. When an image of the Flemish Renaissance painter Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was projected onto the screen, I was riveted. My teacher started to discuss the painting’s symbolism and that was it for me. My mother still remembers me coming home that day, and it was all I could talk about.” From that moment Marchessault knew that art was going to be central to her life.

Portrait of the art historian as a middle-schooler (1997). Courtesy of Lesley Marchessault

In college Marchessault began taking art history courses in earnest and remembers the excitement of a cross-disciplinary class taught by a scientist, an art historian, and an artist, that was inspired by the work of David Hockney and his examination of optics in art and lost techniques of European masters. From there, an undergraduate semester abroad was spent in Florence, Italy, where her passion for Italian Renaissance art was secured, followed by a second semester in Florence for her Masters in Art History. The Basilica of Santa Croce, Michelangelo’s Tomb, the Duomo: Marchessault remembers learning on her feet. “Florence was our classroom; we’d go to a cathedral and spend the day discussing the architecture, the paintings,” she said. “I took Italian classes alongside the art history courses; learning the language was part of the experience.” All of this informed the way Marchessault thinks about learning as a fully immersive and interdisciplinary undertaking. 

Lesley Marchessault honing her super powers in Italy. Courtesy of Lesley Marchessault

Marchessault’s early career established a pattern of trust and collaboration among colleagues and peers that continues today. An undergraduate internship at the LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts (now called LeMoyne Arts) in Tallahassee led to an invite to serve there as the interim curator, when her co-worker and mentor left to take another job. She stayed with the organization until new leadership came on board, and began her Masters degree at Florida State. Two years later, fresh out of grad school, she was asked to return to serve as LeMoyne’s next curator. It was her first real opportunity to work with contemporary artists, and for one exhibition she chose to research and invite self-taught artists. “It involved going into the community, meeting with artists who weren’t well-known, and a lot of studio visits. I loved both the immediacy of working with local artists, and the way an arts community can deepen and grow as an extension of the curatorial process,” she said.

After LeMoyne hit a financial impasse and transitioned to a volunteer-led organization, Marchessault spent a year in public relations, all the while dreaming of returning to a career in the arts. In the spring of 2011, it was her mother who suggested she go visit her cousin Katie Ledoux, who happened to live in the oldest continuous art colony in the US, a.k.a Provincetown.  She applied for and was accepted into the summer internship program at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM) and packed her bags.  Like so many before her who’ve come to town “to figure things out,” Marchessault did what was needed to find a foothold. Her jobs included working and living at an inn and waitressing. “I cooked breakfast and I made beds,” she said.  It didn’t matter that she was seriously overqualified for the internship. “I just wanted to be immersed in an arts organization again.  The more I learned about Provincetown as an arts colony, the more I fell in love.”

That fall Marchessault was hired as the lead mentor in PAAM’s Art Reach youth program; she found herself coming full circle, supporting teens as they explored a variety of creative processes. For Marchessault, “the energy of the kids was infectious. Watching them blossom, become more experimental, and more confident as a result was incredible.” That winter she also worked part-time as PAAM’s membership coordinator. By 2014 she was entrusted with organizing fundraising events like PAAM’s gala and 100th anniversary celebrations. Over the next 10 years she moved up the ranks to become the chief development officer.  As well as managing yearly fundraising events, her contributions included curating exhibitions in the galleries, writing successful grants to support the organization, developing collaborations such as Art in the Barn (at the Hawthorne Barn with Twenty Summers), an Artists Studio Visits program, and bringing PAAM’s 12 x12 auction entirely online. 

What was the best part of working at PAAM? “The relationships I’ve built with co-workers and members of the community have proved to be the most important of my life, outside of my family,” she asserts. “I love the mission of PAAM, which serves the community as a museum, as a center for education, and as an art association supporting contemporary artists. The collection beautifully represents the town’s history through art, and by extension the history of art in the United States and abroad…I’m so proud to have been part of that legacy.”

Luckily for Provincetown, when Marchessault decided she was ready for new challenges, she found the perfect opportunity at the Provincetown Commons. “The Commons has quickly become an integral part of our community— it’s such a warm and welcoming space. Jill Stauffer, (former executive director), the staff, and the Board of Directors have done a wonderful job of laying a strong foundation. I am honored to be entrusted to lead during this exciting new phase in the organization’s development,” Marchessault said.

But what’s most gratifying to Marchessault is the fact that she’ll continue to serve Provincetown’s community. She explained, “ I love the organic quality of the town—of just walking down the street. I never know who I’m going to meet or how my day will change as a result. I deeply appreciate the freedom to be who you are here. Everyone I meet is talented here, everyone is honing their craft. There’s so much to learn from each other. I often have pinch-me moments of sheer gratitude. Provincetown feels like a place that chooses you, and I am so grateful to have been chosen.” 

Provincetown Commons is located at 46 Bradford St. For information about events, exhibitions, membership, etc., call 508. 257.1748 or visit

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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