COTUIT (AP) >> The stairs in the 18th-century building that has long housed the Cahoon Museum of American Art were small and steep. So small and steep that many past patrons had to skip upstairs galleries entirely.
Visitors felt wind coming through windows. Bus tours couldn't stop because the driveway was too narrow. The museum's entire art storage area was months away from collapsing.
Museum leaders finish telling these stories with a sigh of relief and a smile because such troubles and aggravations are now behind them.
On May 8, after nearly two years of construction and a decade of planning, a band of fierce Cahoon supporters will proudly invite the public in for a "grand reopening." This $3 million renovation and expansion to the 32-year-old museum, board president Carol Wilgus said, "has changed our lives."
The term "on the brink" keeps coming up in a conversation with Wilgus and Sarah Johnson, who has started as the new director just as these massive changes— making Cahoon an entirely different level of museum —are happening.
"We are becoming," Wilgus concludes is the best description, though she acknowledges it's not completely clear yet exactly what that evolution will be. At this fresh start, though, the modernized museum marries old and new, is spacious, and is accessible to all.
"There are a lot of opportunities and a lot of possibilities now," Johnson said. "We're willing to experiment and see what works and see what the community responds to."
The work of famed folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon has been and remains the centerpiece of the museum. The married couple were Cotuit fixtures in the 20th century, inspired avid collectors, and Ralph became known on the national art scene.
"What's interesting is that they were an artistic couple, like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner— their careers were intertwined," Johnson said.
The 3,600-square-foot addition has roughly doubled the museum's size, so there's now space to show off much more of the Cahoons' work as well as display the museum's collection of North American art. There's room to bring in visiting and contemporary shows that continue the folk art tradition, too.
One of four gallery rooms in the original 1782-era house is being used to re-create the Cahoons' studio— complete with easels, photographs, journals and ledgers (including an entry for a sale to Jacqueline Kennedy). This will allow visitors to get a better idea of the artists' work and lives.
Patrons can now take an elevator or wide staircase to five galleries upstairs in the red-clapboarded former colonial inn. One room will display the Cahoons' decorated furniture, paintings, sailors' valentines and stenciling on the walls.
Both museum leaders are particularly excited by the possibilities for a large, flexible room that can be converted for classes, children's activities, parties, lectures or the Cahoon's continued programs with Alzheimer's patients.
"We consider this (museum) the heart of Cotuit, and all along we've wanted to do what Sarah will be able to do— work with the community, inspire volunteers, put together an education component ... get kids here and involve families," Wilgus said. "That's necessary for the future, but we had no space."
In addition, the bright, high-ceilinged addition will allow the Cahoons' work and the collected art to be seen in an entirely new way and, literally, a new light. In the past, Wilgus says, visitors were "so limited in being able to see the work, and now they're seeing it as it should be seen."
This will finally happen at the May 8 public event, as well as at a private party to honor Jason Eldredge, head of the board's building committee, and to thank the board members, builders, advisers, volunteers, donors big and small, grant-givers, and various other supporters who helped to save the Cahoon museum and move it into the future.
"This is a community that wants us to succeed," Wilgus said. "They did it with their wallets and their dedication and their hard work."
Johnson wants the refurbished Cahoon to now help make Cape Cod a cultural destination and find its place among other arts organizations from here to Boston.
"I love museums that have character, and this one definitely does," she said. "I think (the Cahoon) has a distinct voice and always had a distinct voice. We just need to make it louder and have it heard."
Information from: Cape Cod Times, http://www.capecodonline.com