Editorial Posted Sep 11, 2019 at 9:06 AM
It’s hard to know which force has had the greater impact on the other. Has Provincetown changed Jay Critchley, a gay man raised among nine siblings in a Catholic family, or has Critchley changed Provincetown even more?
Critchley may be feeling slightly depressed this year. After 32 years running the Provincetown Swim for Life, this was the first year no one dipped a toe into Provincetown Harbor to raise money for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, Helping Our Women, Outer Cape Health Services and other nonprofits. And still, the charitable event Critchley founded in 1988 raised about $150,000 for nonprofits this year. It’s collected $6.5 million overall.
The Cape Cod National Seashore denied him a permit to use Long Point as the jump-off for the 1.4-mile swim across the harbor due to the fear of sharks. Then, Hurricane Dorian hit. So Critchley called off the harbor swim. Even still, swimmers had already raised the pledge money, and so the nonprofits that depend on the Swim’s funds will still get donations.
As a tribute to Critchley, we hope people donate more to make up for the $50,000 shortfall of this year’s semi-swim.
Critchley arrived in Provincetown in the 1970s to take a job at the Drop-In Center. It is here where he left his marriage and began his life as a born-again artist. And he wasn’t quiet about it. His brand of performance art involved in-your-face stuff, like a Statue of Liberty gown made from plastic tampon applicators he found on the beach. He encrusted a station wagon with sand. He gleefully engaged in a three-year trademark battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which had denied his use of the flag for his condom company Old Glory Condoms. This was during the AIDS epidemic when the whole issue of the federal government taking the disease seriously was in question. The trademark ultimately got approved.
Critchley is funny. But he is a sincere person with a deeply serious streak. Take the Swim for Life as an example. There an air of silliness, with its après-Mermaid Brunch, but it’s also a daring plunge into Provincetown’s wild environment.
There is performance art within the Swim. Critchley has rituals, hats, prizes and he continues to add new elements each year. Even the unexpected challenges — the storm this year, a basking shark in the harbor years earlier — are still ways for him to do improv. But he’s always thoughtful about the risks.
The Provincetown Community Compact is another creation seemingly born out of his imagination, though there are other fiscal sponsors elsewhere in the country. The Compact provides umbrella tax exempt status that allows start-up nonprofits to develop themselves before going through the entire process of applying to the U.S. Dept. of Revenue themselves.
The Compact charges a five-percent fee for this service, which includes financial management and accounting. Thus, Critchley has been able to serve as a mentor. Many pillars of the Outer Cape community have benefited including the Provincetown International Film Festival, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and the Provincetown Commons.
From the dunes to the town sewers — he once did a project about year-rounders living in a subterranean sewer world while the rest of the town was reserved for summer residents — Critchley makes art out of Provincetown, and the town is kinder, sillier, and just plain better because of him.