It is 9 a.m. on a clear October morning and already the parking lot at Paines Creek Beach in Brewster, Mass., is lined with easels. It is a common scene on Cape Cod -- artists at their posts. The natural beauty, north light, simple way of life (so simple, 35 years ago there were still outhouses in some places) and accepting attitudes have attracted artists for decades.
But no part of Cape Cod is more closely associated with painting than Provincetown, where Charles Hawthorne, a painter much influenced by Impressionism, founded the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899, establishing this small community at the tip of the peninsula as one of the nation's best-known artist colonies. From June to September, Provincetown's narrow streets bustle with tourists, and its cluster of 25 or so fine-art galleries depend on the summer season for most of their yearly income.
For many in this fine-art community, living in a remote spot "at the end of the universe," as one artist described it, is difficult in the off-season. After Labor Day, the crowds thin and galleries shut down or abbreviate their hours, leaving artists to pass the fall and winter creating inventory for next year. Barter is the underground economy, and some people exchange fine art for housing, health care and daily necessities. Very recently, some local artists formed the Working Artists Union to address their concerns over the high cost of housing and studio space in Provincetown.
One might think e-commerce would be a welcome sales outlet for this community -- a way to extend seasonal sales through a less seasonal commodity.
And most artists and galleries in Provincetown have embraced the Internet, to some extent. They have Web sites and communicate by e-mail, but all have stopped short of providing a secure site that accepts credit cards.
"It is not what we are about," said Robyn Watson, the executive director of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. "We're not selling sweaters here. Fine art is not something you buy without seeing and feeling."
Some of the objections are the familiar technical complaints. For instance, Lavinia Wohlfarth, who owns the Wohlfarth Gallery, which specializes in contemporary art, says it is impossible to see the true colors, texture and size of an artwork through the pixel dots of the Internet, and it would be very difficult to purchase high-end original art without seeing the nuances firsthand.
Equally important is the personal experience of buying fine art. Julie Heller, an art historian who owns the Julie Heller Gallery, the first in Provincetown to establish a Web site (in 1996), said: "Nothing can replace an actual gallery. Buying fine art is a passionate thing. Buying on the Net is compulsive."
William R. Davis, one of the first artists on the Cape to establish a Web site, in 1994, agreed. "By only having a phone number or e-mail address, my customers have to contact me to buy my paintings," he said. "I don't want to lose the one-on-one relationship."
But in Provincetown the Web sites take on a different role. They are advertising tools, often referred to as floating brochures, which provide links to local art events, lodging, social and cultural organizations and even maps and directions. If the attraction of buying art in Provincetown is as much about the town as it is about the art, then the Web sites need to promote the destination.
As Ms. Watson said: "It is important to show work on a Web site, but the aim is not to sell. It is to entice people to come to the area and see the work in the gallery."
Elsewhere on the Cape, galleries and artists are more scattered than clustered, and e-commerce and art seem less like opposites.
In Brewster, the Winstanley-Rourke Gallery Web site (www.masterfulart.com) has been selling the work of 12 artists for several years. Anita Winstanley-Rourke, an owner, said, "Our site has produced many sales, not only from customers who have been to our gallery and know our artists, but recently, from some who have never been here before."
The Studio at Day Hill (www.thestudio-atdayhill.com) in North Falmouth has had an e-commerce site for a year. "The sales are not in keeping with the gallery, but I think e-commerce will improve when technology gets faster and images can be downloaded clearer and quicker," said Julia O'Malley-Keyes, the gallery's owner.
Other e-commerce sites are virtual galleries not affiliated with an actual gallery. Lori DiDonato designed Capewildlifeart.com for an artist friend because "he isn't in galleries and doesn't have an actual gallery, so this is his gallery," she said.
Diedre Colburn-Morehouse created Outermostarts.com, a site that sells the work of 15 local artists. "I'm not trying to put galleries out of business," she said. "I think e-commerce is the way of the future."
Both virtual galleries are less than a year old, and although they have had many hits, there have been no sales yet. "It is a process that will take a while to catch on," Ms. Colburn-Morehouse said.
Sally Nerber, a 30-year veteran of selling fine art on Cape Cod at the Cherry Stone Gallery in Wellfleet, another traditional gallery town near Provincetown, said it was difficult to predict the future of fine art e-commerce, but added, "It may just be that the artists who are not on the Web will become a premium -- because they are extremely rare."
[Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos, The New York Times]