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I would never have paid any attention to Kennedy Gallery and Studios if Michele hadn’t wanted to stop at Box Lunch, down the alley in the back. But she did. So I waited on Commercial Street with the bikes and found myself in front of the gallery actually looking at picture after picture of sunny skies and blue sea, sailboats and lighthouses, elegant Cape Cod homes and sunbathers.
There are hundreds of pictures at Kennedy Studios, filling up the wall space and stacked on the floor. They are not, in fact, paintings but reproductions of watercolors by Robert Edward Kennedy and his ex-wife, Michele Kennedy, that have been either framed or adhered to various supports. The prices go as low as $15. The one that caught my eye was a smallish picture of boys on a footbridge, lining up to dive into the water below. We used to come to Provincetown when I was a child, and I remember watching with envy the Portuguese children diving for the tourists’ quarters tossed from the main pier.
So it was the picture of the boys diving that first snagged my attention, and after that it was the one with the key chain hooks. I mean real hooks, sticking out of a smallish picture on wood. It was a picture that you could bring home to Ohio or New York and attach to your door so that when you retrieved your keys you would be reminded of the slow, sun-filled days.
I had seen similar repurposing of art in Chelsea galleries in Manhattan, art that self-consciously declared its double duty as both artwork and utilitarian object. But the key-hook pieces were the real thing, sans irony. Whoever it was that thought up the entire enterprise — the trivets and calendars, the very idea of bringing home a generic depiction of holiday leisure to cue the mind like a marital aid — had understood that a picture doubling as something to hang keys on makes sense.
None of this would be as interesting if it weren’t happening in Provincetown, a place of unexpected cohabitations. Gay couples can indulge in public displays of affection that would be risky back home, and the straight families in swimsuits and sunburns barely seem to notice them. Gallery/shops like Kennedy Studios provide another contrast beside some of the more high-end galleries in town. Provincetown, after all, is also a place to view serious art. The town’s history includes Marsden Hartley, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Hans Hoffman, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, as well as the writers Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil and Norman Mailer. The legacy is real, and a lot of the art in P-town — the visual art in galleries and the one museum, the theater and performance, the music and poetry — is at a level that satisfies even the most practiced art snob.
On the other hand, everybody shops in Provincetown, and, like elsewhere, shopping happens at different levels. People with serious money can shop at the art galleries in addition to the clothing and jewelry stores. It’s a value-added experience, a way to distinguish oneself from the general population of shoppers. The collector has the satisfaction of knowing that he or she is supporting a culture with deep roots.
The galleries tend to be small storefronts like those on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1980s. But where the LES galleries sat next to bodegas and secondhand stores, the P-town spaces share walls with cheap jewelry stores and purveyors of saltwater taffy or hoodies with cute slogans. Despite high aspirations and a daunting legacy, Provincetown galleries are infected by the culture of tourism and the need to cover a year’s rent in three months.
This context of rapacious, tourist-targeted commercialism is so palpable that the most ambitious work can start to feel like kitsch while the unabashedly kitschy becomes interesting, if not quite profound. Kitsch can be found in all the art capitals of the world; in P-town, however, with its extreme collisions of high and low, gay and straight, natural beauty and drag queen surrealism, art gets swept up in a tidal wave of it. The conflict between cultural legacy and the scramble for the tourist dollar becomes yet another clash of opposites in this tiny seaside town.
Kennedy Studios is a thorn in the side of the cultural heritage of Provincetown. Nothing in the store is complex or ambiguous. Although the original watercolors offer some of the touch and light of 19th-century seascapes, the originals are not for sale here. Instead we have either framed reproductions or reproductions adhered to various substances and covered with something that looks like polymer resin. There is no tactility, no play with materials. The pictures are inert.
What you do get is a representation of shared experience, the state of being on vacation. The use value of the painting spin-offs is unquestionable. Experience is captured and reified, frozen and waiting, ready to be accessed whenever the purchaser can achieve the peace of mind to tap into it. Kennedy Studios offers an art-buying experience pitched at the average tourist. In doing so, it scrambles the collecting hierarchy.
In the end, it comes down to art and its functionality and how much this functionality or use value depends on context. It’s possible that every purchase of art in P-town may involve this same act of relocation, an attempt to bring home some of the charm and leisure of the place. For the majority of tourists, at prices starting at $15, Kennedy Studios does it better by offering it cheaper.
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