It was her grandmother’s influence, in part, that led PAAM executive director Chris McCarthy to Provincetown. “She very insistent that arts—museums, theater, opera—should be a significant part of our lives,” she remembers. “She encouraged me to study languages and travel abroad.”
McCarthy studied humanities, Italian, and photography at Providence College, and she remembered her grandmother’s encouragement. “My junior year, I studied in Siena and Florence, and that really solidified my commitment to the arts.”
She went on to earn a master of arts in art history and museum studies at Syracuse University, attending a hands-on program. “I curated shows at the Joe and Emily Lowe Art Gallery on the Syracuse campus and worked at the Yale University Art Gallery on a one-year fellowship in the department of prints, drawings and photographs, which was very rewarding.”
McCarthy moved to Boston in 1994 where she spent seven years at the ICA doing development, public relations, operations, and administration. That led to her being hired by PAAM in June 2001 to oversee a renovation and expansion project then just in the conceptual stages.
That assignment began a long and positive relationship. “Prior to my appointment, the PAAM board was leaning toward the idea of a simple renovation and had started doing some fundraising. The board was split and not everyone was convinced that this was the way to go, so there was some tension within the organization,” she says.
But it was clear that a new direction was needed. The facility needed renovation, with onsite storage at capacity and leaks in three out of the four galleries. Other institutions and collectors weren’t willing to loan or gift artwork to PAAM, really limiting the association’s scope. “As we started getting more and more outside support, more people were willing to listen to the reasons why this facility was so important,” says McCarthy. While Provincetown is a living arts colony, the local art association wasn’t living up to the community’s history—or future.
McCarthy was experiencing the ultimate irony. “PAAM wasn’t able to bring work to Provincetown that was made in Provincetown! In 2001 and 2002, Boston’s MFA featured the work of Blanche Lazzell and her contemporaries in From Paris to Provincetown. That exhibition should have been on Cape Cod, but the facility wasn’t capable of handling it—or a variety of other exhibitions.”
It was time to renovate an institution that was both important and beloved. “Up until the renovation, the facility consisted of an 1820s captain’s house with a concrete cinderblock addition,” says McCarthy. “From the outside, it was perceived as a private residence, not a museum.” And even if it looked more like a museum, there would still be problems. “We exhibit over 600 contemporary artists annually,” McCarthy says. “The glass façade on the new wing was very necessary for passers-by. The firm of Machado and Silvetti’s expertise, not only with museum architecture, but renewable energy and urban design, played a significant role in the success of the project and they were able to provide ample storage, climate control, beautifully designed galleries, four studio classrooms, and office and retail space. In this area, that’s a very difficult task!”
PAAM is one of only five art association and museum combinations in the country, comprising a professional artists association, a museum, and a school. All of these components feed into each other to promote PAAM as an arts center that provides year-round activities for the 800 artist members who participate in open and juried exhibitions, classes, and workshops.
Where is the art association and museum heading now? “One of our goals,” answers McCarthy, “is to provide solid programming 52 weeks a year, instead of cramming everything into the high season. By offering classes, programs, workshops, exhibitions, and lectures as part of our shoulder season, we’ve tried to achieve a balance on a year-round basis. Our three-year exhibition schedule features very solid programs in the winter months and helps get visitors to the Cape in all seasons.”
The current exhibition has been extended, in fact, due to the public’s overwhelming response. “In 2016 PAAM received the second-largest gift of Hopper works to a museum in the world,” says McCarthy. “We received close to 200 drawings—plus diaries, letters and ephemera by Josephine and Edward Hopper. We hope to make this material accessible for scholars, museum professionals, critics, and more.”
So what does she do when she’s not involved in art and nonprofit management? “I love to go clamming, cook, spend time with my family and my dog,” McCarthy days. “I love to travel.” What’s the most recent book she read? One that’s art-related, of course! “It’s Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Forger.”
In fact, she’s happy with her life. “I get to live in the most beautiful place, doing what I was trained to do—so professionally and personally I have been blessed and I am very grateful.”