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A Forum of Forty-Niners

The Forum 49 Group.
Courtesy of PAAM

by Steve Desroches

Much like the prospectors who traveled to California for the gold rush in 1849, artists, intellectuals, writers, and more came to Provincetown in the summer of 1949 to mine the town for ideas. Ever since Charles Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, which would ultimately establish the art colony here, the Outer Cape has become a continual incubator of new ways of thinking and creating. So much happens in a year creatively in Provincetown, year-round, that it can boggle the mind when trying to piece together all that has happened over the decades. Sometimes it’s good to stop and reflect as well as to actively question the past, present, and future. That’s what happened in Provincetown when artist and poet Weldon Kees, painter Fritz Bultman, and poet Cecil Hemley organized Forum 49, a summer-long series of weekly events that explored the issues of the day and their impact on the arts. Forum 49 was a smashing success and once again Provincetown was on the map, garnering significant attention for pushing the boundaries of imagination, creativity, and the avant-garde, also causing a little controversy along way as the town so often does.

Held in Gallery 200 at 200 Commercial Street (where Toys of Eros and Kiehl’s are now), Forum 49 began with a panel discussion focused on the question “What is an artist?” An overflow crowd, with some listening in from the street, heard Hans Hoffman, Adolph Gottlieb, Serge Chermayeff, and George Biddle discuss and debate that age-old inquiry. Coming out of World War II, globally, humanity was putting itself back together after such a calamity, and in turn art and expression itself was adapting and evolving to address what had happened and the major changes it put into motion. Indeed that summer provided a much-needed moment of self-reflection and introspection for the Provincetown art colony. Inspired by that, artist Cid Bolduc had the idea for Forum 24, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Forum 49. Co-organized with artist Grace Hopkins and sponsored by the Provincetown Art Gallery Association, Forum 24 features a summer of events to explore modern art and cultural shifts explored through the prism of contemporary events.

Grace Hopkins at the opening exhibition of Forum 24 at PAAM.
Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

“We took some of the ideas they had in ‘49 exactly,” says Hopkins. “They came up with the ideas they wanted to talk about and then found people to talk about them. Every organization that wanted to participate [in Forum 24] could do whatever they wanted. It’s a great way to point out all the amazing organizations that we love.”

Forum 24 began with a spring exhibition curated by Hopkins at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), featuring works from the permanent collection of artists who participated in Forum 49. Focusing on the work of today is The Legacy of Forum 49: A MembersJuried Exhibition, judged by Bolduc and Hopkins, featuring works somehow informed by Forum 49, up now at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum through November 2. Connecting the past and the present is at the core of Forum 24, and perhaps no better example is the panel discussion “Revisiting ‘Directions in 20th Century Architecture,’” featuring Peter McMahon, founding director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and Timothy Rohan, department chair and associate professor of American and European architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

The Kugel/Gips  House is one of the modern houses that will be discussed and toured during Forum 24
Courtesy of Cape Modern House Trust

It is still shockingly, largely unknown that the Outer Cape is home to a significant inventory of important examples of early modern architecture, with most tucked away in the woods of Wellfleet and Truro, which might explain why they remain somewhat a secret. The early pioneers of modern architecture made their way to the Outer Cape in the late 1930s, most of them escaping Europe as the Nazis’ power expanded and war seemed inevitable. Those architects moved to New York City and followed the artists, writers, and others to Provincetown for the summer, many of them settling here permanently. Here, they found an abundance of land, and prior to the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, they could build experimental homes and explore their creativity over the next several decades. On August 18, 1949, architect Marcel Breuer hosted the panel discussion “Directions in 20th Century Architecture,” featuring the artist and filmmaker György Kepes, and architect and journalist Peter Blake, who was then curator for architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. Exploring the discussion that took place 75 years ago is prescient, as McMahon is currently leading an effort for the Trust to purchase and restore Breuer’s home in Wellfleet. 

“We definitely wanted to have a modern architecture piece,” says Hopkins. “Breuer was building his house here during Forum 49, so it seemed important to make sure architecture was part of Forum 24.”

A portion of the Forum 24 exhibition currently running at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
Courtesy of Grace Hopkins

Other events include a panel discussion at the Center for Coastal Studies about art and nature, a storytelling night at the Provincetown Theater about people’s experiences with the community organization the Provincetown Community Compact, film screenings and discussions at PAAM about surrealism, as well as a panel moderated by artist and gallerist Mike Carroll addressing the primary question of Forum 49, “What is an artist?” 

Forum 24 will end in October the same way Forum 49 ended, with a panel titled “Everyone’s Forum,” a community discussion with playwright and performer Ryan Landry as presenter, followed by a party, as for every bit as serious as Forum 49 was, it was also a really good time once the talking was over. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

“We live on this crazy sand bar,” says Hopkins. “So much happens here, all year. This is still very much a vital place for art and thought. Some think it’s all about money, and there are those here who are only interested in money. But we have people, a lot of people, who are more interested in ideas.”

For a full schedule and more information on Forum 24 visit

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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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