“The Outer Cape is really my favorite place in the whole world,” says Joshua Prager. He spent every summer there as a kid, fishing and biking and running down the dunes; before becoming a journalist and author, he waited tables at the Surf Club and sold vegetables at the Hillside Farmstand on Route 6. But despite his deep love for the area, he didn’t know about a key piece of its history until 2009, when he first stepped foot into the Hawthorne Barn. “It looked very much like it looks when you see pictures from 100 years ago, just this barn on a hill overlooking the sea,” Prager recalls. “It just fills up with light. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really magical place.’ ”
Photo by Mischa Richter
Plein-air painter Charles Webster Hawthorne built the barn in 1907 for his Cape Cod School of Art, equipping it with a 15-by-15-foot north-facing window to let that famed Provincetown light flood in. After Hawthorne’s death, the abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann reopened the school, and over the decades, everyone from Norman Rockwell to Norman Mailer spent time under its gambrel roof. But a few years back, the barn was in need of TLC, and the property was put up for sale. A cornerstone of Provincetown’s artist colony could have been turned into condos.
Instead, the barn is once again a home for art, thanks to Prager’s nonprofit, Twenty Summers, which navigated a thicket of permitting and secured a buyer to renovate the barn. Now it operates programs there from mid-May to mid-June every year, right when the ferry starts up but before the peak-season crowds descend.
Photo by Eileen Counihan
“We really wanted to make sure the barn was being used for its initial purpose, that it was still being used to inspire art,” Prager says. During the week, it hosts residencies for artists, including local talents and big names like Jim Hodges, who came to the barn right before his retrospective at the ICA. On the weekends there are concerts—everything from classical music inspired by the sea to a solo set by the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt—and conversations with the likes of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham and Geraldine Brooks and marriage equality plaintiff Edith Windsor. Many events sell out, but videos end up on Twenty Summers’ website. It’s all run by Prager and his two co-founders, tech industry veteran Ricky Opaterny and Emerson writer-in-residence Julia Glass, and a single part-time employee, operations manager Camille Ives Beck.
The foursome are preparing to launch the fourth season on May 12 with a talk on how drawing P-town shaped Hans Hofmann. Then come residencies for artists like Susan Mikula, who works with vintage Polaroid cameras, and a dozen other events, including a night of Moby-Dick-inspired music, a conversation with Junot Diaz and Jacqueline Woodson titled “Telling Tales in a World of Alternative Facts” and a sold-out concert by Duncan Sheik, who’ll premiere music composed in the barn. He’s the first musician in residence, but while every season brings new talents and ideas, Prager doesn’t want to ever stray from what makes the place special. “I have no aspirations to grow our nonprofit. I don’t want to become six months; I don’t want to start having events all over town. I like that we’re one month and that we’re in this barn, and that is a beautiful thing.”
Photo by Eileen Counihan