Several sources indicate that the Cape Ann Museum will close for renovation and expansion several months after the exhibition “Above the Fold” ends in March, 2024. The museum, which turns 150 in 2025, may reopen by then with yet another blockbuster “Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko.” 

Construction is estimated to take a year once commenced. While anticipated for fall, 2024 a precise date and schedule has not yet been announced.

Guest curator, Eliza Rathbone, will document a remarkable but little known era of modernism on Cape Ann. 

Gloucester 400th Plus has been a banner year for the relatively small but feisty Cape Ann Museum. 

This summer’s blockbuster, “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Illuminating an American Landscape,” drew 36,538 visitors during its 12 weeks. An average annual attendance for the museum is some 25,000. With a month to go, but relatively slow post Hopper, the museum had 60,987 visitors.

The museum might have crammed more in but set a dignified limit of 700 daily visitors. That assured the best possible experience to view rare works largely borrowed from its partner The Whitney Museum. The exhibition presented the artist, then on the cusp of failure, jump started by the support and inspiration of his painting partner Josephine ‘Jo’ Verstille Nivison (1883-1968).

They had been students of Robert Henri in New York but connected during the summer of 1923. He had visited on 1912 and painted in Maine for six seasons. With Jo he clicked that summer as Hopper started to become Hopper. 

That fall she persuaded curators of the Brooklyn Museum to include him in a biennial survey of American watercolor. That entailed giving up six of her twelve slots. From that show the museum purchased his “Mansard Roof” for $100. It was his first sale in a decade. Others would follow. Married in 1924 they returned to Gloucester until 1928 at which point they bought property and summered in Truro. 

The previous attendance record for CAM was set in 2019 with the Winslow Homer (1836-1910) exhibition. There were 39,000 annual visitors which was a lot for small, eclectic museum with a bit of this-and-that. There was no particular focus other than a definitive collection of luminist paintings  by Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865).

Until now, the museum has lacked curatorial vision and a commitment to tell the full and remarkable story, then and now, of one of America’s leading communities of artists. That’s as true today as it has ever been despite egregious neglect and lack of support by the museum. 

There is palpable evidence that change is in the air under the dynamic and effective director, Oliver Barker. Moving forward the museum must appoint a curator dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The long time chief curator, Martha Oaks, has other interests. 

The museum has announced a “commitment to gift” of an exceptional collection of more than 300 pieces of Cape Ann American art by former Rockport residents Janet and William “Wilber” Ellery James, now of Palm Beach, Florida. It represents the largest single donation of works in the museum’s 148-year history, the collection includes works by Milton Avery, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Marsden Hartley, Jane Peterson, Paul Manship, George Aarons, Cecilia Beaux, Adolph Gottlieb, Eric Hudson, Theresa Bernstein, Winslow Homer and Stuart Davis among many others.

The museum says the promised donation will bring new genres and masterworks to its holdings. News of the gift comes as the museum works to strategically expand its collections in advance of its 150th anniversary in 2025.

There were high hopes for the celebrations of Gloucester 400th Plus. It’s a time of transition and change. The grunge and salty stench of a vibrant fishing community has long passed. There has been an infusion of wealth through generic condo developments.
Working class homes in The Fort and Portuguese Hill have flipped as impoverished fishermen have taken buyouts. 

The local consensus is that Hopper had more to do with a congested summer of tourism than Gloucester 400th Plus.  Barker put the museum on the map and by extension that rising tide raised all ships. 

The big ticket Hopper show was book ended by realist paintings of local artist, Jeff  Weaver, and followed by “Above the Fold” Gloucester Daily Times history a selection of photographs from 1973 to 2005.  It features Charles A. “Charlie” Lowe, who worked at the Times from 1957 to 1981. He died at age 49. The show includes 13 other photographers. The exhibition closes on March 17, 2024.

Those who have seen plans and drawings for the museum’s renovation and construction describe it as building out the footprint. What is currently an outdoor sculpture court to the right of the museum entrance will be enclosed. There is also space next to the back of the library. An area in the basement for classes will be renovated. The intent is to get the best use of internal spaces to display the collection and special exhibitions. 

With the museum under construction that questions use of its annex of historic buildings and a warehouse/ gallery. There is potential expansion of programming but that entails staffing. Parking, however, is not a problem.

William Meyerowitz, 1923, Cape Ann Museum Gift of James F. O’Gorman and Jean Baer O’Gorman, 1985

Director Oliver Barker has put CAM on the map. Giuliano photo

Guest curator, Eliza Rathbone

Milton Avery

Adolph Gottlieb

Mark Rothko

The 13 photographers in “Above the Fold” have all worked with the Times and live in Gloucester or the surrounding area and have been working with the collections team to develop narratives around the photos they took, Barker said. The exhibit will close out Gloucester’s 400+ anniversary year for the museum and run until March 17, 2024.

During the 1930s many Gloucester artists were supported by the WPA. There was a summer influx of emerging modernists attracted to affordable rent and spectacular subjects for painting. They clustered in East Gloucester and returned through the 1940s. 

Among the better known artists were Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis, Barnett Newman, Milton and Sally Avery, Theodore Stamos, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and photographer, Aaron Siskind. Hans Hoffmann opened a school in Gloucester but the following year moved it to New York and Provincetown in the summer. 

In her unpublished history of Cape Ann artists, Susan Erony, has made a start of this era of modernists. Until the intended CAM exhibition little has been done to document and flesh out this important chapter in American art history. Few have been aware that modernism existed as a counter to the conservative Rockport School which still prevails.

For reasons that Rathbone no doubt will explore, the progressive artists decamped for more welcoming Provincetown and East Hampton. During a time which Irving Sandler has tagged as “The Triumph of  American Art” Gloucester was deemed as not supportive of the progressive abstraction that proved to be world dominant. 

The work that Avery, Gottlieb and Rothko created on Cape Ann was experimental and transitional. Like other leading artists they were struggling to come out from under the provincial genres of Social Realism, American Scene and Regionalism that prevailed from the Great Depression through the Post War era. 

The seed of how this played out in Gloucester is a great and fascinating story to tell. For this project the museum has engaged guest curator Eliza Rathbone. She is the daughter of former Museum of Fine Arts director, Perry T. Rathbone. Her siblings Peter, with Christie’s auction house, and Bellinda, an author and art historian, have pursued the family business.

In 2014, Eliza retired after 20 years as the chief curator of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. She moved to what had been a summer home on the North Shore. 

Rathbone attended Smith College and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and earned her master’s degree in 1974 from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. She began her career in 1977 as assistant curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery of Art before joining the Phillips in 1985 as associate curator. Rathbone also served as the museum’s curator of 20th-century art before her promotion to chief curator and director of curatorial affairs in 1992.

She has organized exhibitions of modernists including Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani and Giorgio Morandi as well as later 20th-century and contemporary figures such as Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. Rathbone also organized a series of exhibitions focused on 19th-century French art, including “Impressionists on the Seine: A Celebration of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party,” in 1996; “Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige” in 1998; and “Impressionist Still Life” (2001) In a collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art, Rathbone curated “Van Gogh: Repetition” (2013), The exhibition attracted almost 115,000 visitors.

With great enthusiasm we look forward to the relaunch of CAM and her thrilling exhibition in 2026.