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More space to smile

Ralph and Martha in studio, Cape Cod Art Annual 2016

Photograph courtesy of the Cahoon Museum of American Art

Like most folk artists, the Cahoons were largely self-taught and not classically trained. Martha’s father, a Swedish immigrant named Axel Farham, taught Martha the art of furniture decorating, which she pursued as a career. Soon after she married Ralph in 1932, he became her apprentice and, over time, the pair built a thriving furniture decorating and antiques business in Osterville.

Their careers took an even-more successful turn when wealthy arts patron Joan Whitney Payson noticed their furniture decorations in 1953, and encouraged them to transfer their talents to wall painting. “She was an art collector and connoisseur,” Nickerson says of Payson, who also played an instrumental role in bringing the Mets to New York City in 1962 to replace the departed Giants. “Where Grandma Moses had such great success as a folk artist in the 1940s, I think that Payson may have felt she was uncovering the next Grandma Moses in the Cahoons.”

Beginning this summer, Cahoon fans will be able to rekindle the Ralph-or-Martha debate at the renovated and expanded Cahoon museum. A two-year, $2.5-million renovation and new building project enabled the museum to add 3,600 square feet of new space, roughly doubling the exhibit area while improving access, increasing parking, and providing more room for classes, lectures, and community events.

A Colonial Georgian structure that Ebenezer Crocker began started building in 1775, the museum was home to five generations of Crockers before it fell into non-Crocker hands in the 1920s. The Cahoons purchased the house in 1945, and it served as their home and studio until Ralph passed away in 1982. Local art enthusiast Rosemary Rapp purchased the home and transformed it into a museum two years later. In 1999 Martha passed away at the age of 94.

While much of the old building’s renovation work is hidden—a shored-up foundation, window rehabilitation, and other structural improvements—so, too, is the addition, which is neatly tucked behind the original structure and smartly blends the new with the old.

“When you’re adding a new addition to an old structure, it’s very tricky to match the new and the old styles,” says Sarah Johnson, who was named director of the museum in March, succeeding Richard Waterhouse, who oversaw the construction project during his five-year tenure. “This project is very balanced and blends the old with the new in a sensitive way. The scale of the new building is in line with that of the old building. The addition is stepped back from the historic structure, and the roofline is slightly lower.

“On the interior,” Johnson adds, “the new addition is a beautiful space, featuring high-quality work and craftsmanship. A lot of museums and galleries feature white cubed interiors, but our interior is warmer and uses a lot of wood and other natural materials. The addition definitely reflects Cape Cod architecture. It’s been a very successful project.”

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