Each morning this past February and March, I woke in the near dark and for a mile and change ambled in the snow, past white pines punctuated with stunted birches, to breakfast. I’d come to MacDowell, an artists’ colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to wind down a book manuscript I’d been working on for the past three and a half years. I tend to turn mornings into opportunities for appalling procrastination, but on most days I was behind the desk by ten-thirty, wincing awake and glancing apprehensively into a laptop’s unblinking screen. Until another walk to dinner just after dark, I had the run of a cabin with a porch and a working fireplace, a place quiet enough to hear meltwater dripping from the eaves and the burbling of the humidifier. Lunch arrived via pickup truck. Blake Tewksbury, who’s worked there for more than twenty-five years, set the wicker basket on the porch with minimum fuss, making sure to not let the screen door rattle. This is how a day at MacDowell tends to go.
Friends I’ve told about this routine shake their heads; sounds horrible, they deadpan. Yet the risk in describing the idyll of the place is in perpetuating a certain platitude about writing (or any creative endeavor): the one in which the author, with a sigh and a glance up at the New England greenery and the cumulus clouds over the mountains, unspools effortless reams of crisp, finished prose. In fact, the commonplaces of a working artist are decidedly unsentimental; the currency tends to be solitude, false starts, self-doubt, a small audience and even smaller remuneration. For many who come to the colony, the sense of recognition and encouragement that an invitation to MacDowell offers is nearly as important as the time and space it affords. This winter, I met a novelist in his late fifties embarking on a first book; after weeks in Peterborough, he still wore a look of perpetual astonishment. “This is the first time, ever,” he said, “that someone beside my family has expressed confidence in my work.” Marian MacDowell, who opened the doors to the country’s first artists’ colony here 104 years ago, had an acute grasp of these realities. In a society that remains, at best, skeptical about public funding for the arts, her innovation became arguably the most effective yet for nurturing its artists.
Marian’s scheme began as a plot of wooded countryside she bought after returning from Germany; she had gone to Europe to study piano and ended up marrying her teacher, Edward MacDowell, who would become America’s first internationally-renowned composer. In the summer of 1898 he was working at their New Hampshire home when Marian surprised him: she’d had a cabin built on a hillside overlooking Mount Monadnock, a single room in the woods where he could compose in solitude. Edward wouldn’t have much time to make use of the gift – he died less than a decade later, from an injury sustained in a New York traffic accident – but in his last years he asked Marian to put the cabin to use by inviting young artists to work there. He imagined a “tiny imitation of the American Academy in Rome.” Following his death, under his wife’s stewardship, the idea grew. Marian envisioned a place where, she wrote, “artists working in various fields,” through contact with one another, “may learn to appreciate fully the fundamental unity of the separated arts.” Most importantly, she stipulated that “no social distinctions shall be allowed to determine the choice” of those who stayed at the Colony.
Nothing like it had been attempted, and Marian’s coniferous Shangri-La attracted its share of detractors. J.P. Morgan, an admirer of Edward’s, wanted to help Marian but declared, “I’ll do nothing unless she gives up that damn, foolish scheme in the country.” She pressed ahead. In a matter of years, she expanded the property, built a sawmill and working farm on the land, and began erecting dormitories and studios. By the 1920s, less than two decades after the first artists arrived in Peterborough, the Colony had become known as the provenance of some of the day’s most acclaimed novels, poetry, and music, attested to by a raft of Pulitzers and other honors. By the conclusion of World War II, the London Times averred that “the only place in the world where ideal conditions for the creative worker are considered is the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, USA.”
Unlike many American arts patrons of the period, Marian MacDowell wasn’t a scion to a private fortune. From the beginning, the Colony owed its existence to shrewd fundraising campaigns and a reliance on sometimes minute donations. Marian founded MacDowell clubs around the country, rallied women’s clubs and sororities, kicked off penny drives, allowed sponsors to endow individual studios, and pressed notable colonists into speaking on its behalf. Most memorably, she toured the country giving concerts of her husband’s music and, afterwards, standing on crutches in front of the audiences, making appeals on behalf of her newly famous institution. Marian’s traction proved formidable. When a freak hurricane lay waste to much of the grounds in 1938, the artists who had benefitted from MacDowell’s hospitality rushed to Marian’s aid; they raised most of the $40,000 needed to reopen the Colony through donations and charitable concerts. When the matriarch retired from the day-to-day management of the place in 1946 – she was nearly ninety – she left an institution that would continue to expand and sustain itself financially while remaining essentially identical to her vision. In the meantime, artists’ colonies like Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts cropped up around the country, many using MacDowell as a model.
Inevitably, the history of a cultural institution is told in a litany of bold faced names, and the Colony has hosted its share, from Thornton Wilder, whose Our Town is said to have been modeled on Peterborough, to novelist Michael Chabon, a frequent visitor and MacDowell’s current chair. The names of the some 250 artists who arrive every year – today the list also includes filmmakers, photographers, architects and interdisciplinary artists – are marked down on wooden tablets hanging on the studios’ walls. For their shape, and probably because many of the earliest names belong to the now-deceased, everyone calls them “tombstones.” During my first stay, I took them down and stacked them under the bed; it had felt as though a century’s worth of writers, particularly the brilliant and the acclaimed, were appraising my not-quite-lapidary sentences from the walls.
On subsequent visits I came to see the tombstones differently. I didn’t recognize the majority of the names, and it occurred to me that everyone who’d stayed here – the lauded as well as the mostly forgotten – had fidgeted behind the same desk, had paced and sighed and engaged in imaginary arguments in the same room before sitting down and, in all likelihood, doing some work. Most hadn’t ended up famous; the Colony, I realized, was really for them. Because what mattered about the place is that it existed to enable the one completely autonomous act an artist can engage in – his or her work. What happened to the work in the world counted far less, perhaps not at all.
Marian MacDowell’s unorthodox notion was that the making of art – not merely the celebrated output of the most visible artists – remains useful in a democratic society. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “One of the hard things in my life is to see the eternal struggle of so many fine artists. We all believe in democracy, but there was one good side to the old autocracy. With all its faults, it had a personal feeling of responsibility for art and artists. Not always, but enough to have given us much that would have otherwise been lost. So it has to be the individual or the organization in our democracy that must help along our creative worker.”
Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.