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In Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, there is an art school that has attracted some of America's most talented students and instructors for more than a century. Painter Norman Rockwell and sculptor Robert Motherwell both studied there. But despite its prominent place in American art history, the school's future is threatened.
Sean Corcoran of member station WCAI explains why.
SEAN CORCORAN: Atop one of Provincetown's highest sand dunes, just past a small wading pool where craning ducks wait for an artist to come along and to pick them on a canvass or a pad, is a small barn that has weathered Atlantic gales and Nor'easters winds for more than 100 years.
Artist and teacher Olga Opsahl-Gee is the barn's most recent owner and caretaker.
Ms. OLGA OPSAHL-GEE (Director, Hawthorne School of Art): You open the old door of the latch and you immediately walk in the barn. Its vastness is overwhelming.
CORCORAN: Each day, Opsahl-Gee leads students past the ducks, along a narrow plank board walkway to the barn's entrance and inside for art class.
Ms. OPSAHL-GEE: Smells like the forest in here. There's windows that face the sea. There's windows that face the sunset. And all the wood beams and the crossbeam pieces and all the nature surrounding you is really a very peaceful yet dramatic feeling of creativity.
CORCORAN: Artist Charles Webster Hawthorne built this studio barn at the height of American impressionism in 1899, opening America's first outdoor summer school for figure painting. He called it the Cape Cod School of Art. Claes Oldenburg studied here, and playwright Tennessee Williams set one of his scenes in this barn. Occasionally students will discover the names of other long passed artists carved into the barn's wood support beams.
Provincetown art historian Sharon Rucker-Priorie(ph) says the school, now called the Hawthorne School of Art, is part of the foundation of American art history.
Ms. SHARON RUCKER-PRIORIE (Art Historian): These are the roots - it's property, it's the barn, it's being up here. And there's a need to keep it going. A need to keep it - to preserve it.
CORCORAN: Last year, Opsahl-Gee's husband, artist Peter Gee, died. And she now finds herself owing creditors and back taxes. She just can't maintain the school anymore, she says, and she's sadly put it up for sale.
Ms. OPSAHL-GEE: Someone with a passion for nature and - should buy this school as it is and keep this barn as a museum, which is what I see happening.
CORCORAN: So far no legitimate buyer has come forward. If it does sell, the barn is listed on the National Historic Register, so while it may become someone's locked home or perhaps even a tool shed, it's protected from being torn down or significantly altered.
But the dunes outside its enormous windows, with their beach plum trees and bayberry bushes, are not protected. They could be divided up. But local real estate agent Rose Kennedy is trying to sell the property for Opsahl-Gee intact for just over $3.6 million.
Ms. ROSE KENNEDY (Real Estate Agent): For people that do development, it's a jewel, it's beautiful. And it would be beautiful for homes. The other side of me, which loves Provincetown and has been here for 27 years, that side of me is hoping that the right buyer comes along and says I want the barn and the house and I want to continue the history of this property. That is the dream for everyone involved.
CORCORAN: Scattered across the property, hidden beneath the shade trees and other unexpected places are clay sculptures left behind by artists throughout the years. And it's impossible to estimate how many renderings of its sand dunes or ocean views now hang in museums or above mantels around the world.
For NPR News, I'm Sean Corcoran on Cape Cod.
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