Plein air painting

Plein air painting on Mayflower Beach in Dennis is one of the offerings of the Cape Cod Art Center.

Cape Cod Art Association celebrates its past and looks forward to its future as the Cape Cod Art Center

In the spring of 1948, the Barnstable Comedy Club was staging “Apron Strings,” Puritan Clothing was advertising men’s work shirts for $1.69, and the Cape Cod Art Association held its first organizational meeting.

Today, “Apron Strings” has been forgotten and $1.69 shirts are unheard of, but the art organization that began with six members seven decades ago is a thriving year-round operation that nurtures artists and makes art accessible to the community at large.

As part of its 70th anniversary celebration, the Barnstable nonprofit has undergone a name change and is now called the Cape Cod Art Center. The change was in response to a survey that revealed many people in the community thought the art association was more of a private organization, according to Executive Director Roberta Miller. “Their perception was it wasn’t open to the public because of the word ‘association,’” Miller says. The new name was announced last December and since then, “We are getting some new people coming in the door,” she says.

Cape Cod Art Center is located on Route 6A in Barnstable, just east of the village center. Built in 1972 on donated land, the center’s headquarters is slated for an expansion to both reflect and accommodate the organization’s increased role in the community. Plans call for doubling the contemporary building’s current size to 7,000 square feet, adding a third floor and a rooftop deck; enlarging and connecting the two main galleries; and adding elevators, classrooms, storage space and additional restrooms. The $2 million project will also include improvements to the heating and cooling system and to lighting systems in the studios. With plans designed by Lineal Architects in keeping with the modern style of the original building designed by noted architect Richard Gallagher, the organization hopes to begin the expansion project in the next couple of years.

Before building its permanent home, the organization had two different locations in Hyannis and a temporary location in Barnstable. It all began, however, in the Osterville home of Dr. Fritz Talbot, who was head of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and had a home in Osterville. “He wanted to paint, and there was nowhere around here for artists to meet,” Miller explains. A newly created exhibit at the center pays tribute to Dr. Talbot and his vision.

Cape Cod, at that time, had one art institution: the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, established in 1914. “We were the second one on the Cape,” Miller says, noting, “There was crossover—well-known members of the Provincetown Art Association exhibited here,” including Robert Motherwell, Henry Hensche and Hans Hoffmann. “It really was an explosion of artists, and this area finally had a place for them to meet.”

In researching the organization’s history, Miller and others pored over artifacts that included a 1948 ledger with handwritten notes from early meetings, including the very first one on May 21, 1948. The group began with just six members, who each paid $3 a year for a membership. It began as a seasonal organization, Miller says, and held “maybe four exhibits a year.”