Two weeks ago, artists and art lovers converged on the quiet town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, for a chance to meet some of the most talented contemporary artists working today. Each August the famed MacDowell Colony opens its doors to the public and gives visitors from around the country an opportunity to tour its 32 studios, historic sites, 450 acres of forest, vegetable gardens, streams, orchards, and fields.
When composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian established an artist retreat in the New Hampshire woods in 1907, the idea seemed nothing less than ridiculous. Skeptics were quick to pounce, accusing Mrs. MacDowell of creating “a home for indigent bohemians.” But remarkably, the idea worked. The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artist retreat in the United States, has supported over 6000 writers, filmmakers, composers, visual artists, architects, and performers, and spawned hundreds of other programs based on its model. For two to eight weeks at a time, artists are given a private studio, three meals a day (lunch is delivered in the now-legendary picnic baskets), and quiet time to work on a creative project within a community of artistic peers.
What makes MacDowell’s Medal Day unique is the diverse range of artists, art lovers and supporters who are thrown together for a weekend of socializing, open studios, and conversations about the value and meaning of art—art on a personal level, but also a national one. Medal Day is like a family reunion of sorts, with the usual cast of crazy cousins and wise matriarchs mingling with all of those black sheep (and there are plenty of black sheep).
But regardless of your role in the MacDowell family—whether you’re a colony fellow, a local resident, an out-of-town visitor, a volunteer, a staff member, a friend, a supporter, or in my case, a former staff member turned press—there is always a sense of homecoming when you step onto the Colony property. From the moment that MacDowell fellow and board member Michael Chabon steps up to the microphone, you become hyperaware that in this oasis the value of art is not only assumed, but considered as essential as food, water, or air.
During this year’s ceremony, I appreciated Executive Director Cheryl Young’s thoughts on “bohemianism” and the financial struggles of working artists:
Luc [Sante] devotes a chapter to bohemia in New York in Low Life noting it was a state of mind more than a place. Therein he quotes a definition of the term by the author Ada Clare: “The Bohemian is by nature, if not by habit, a cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts and for all things above and beyond convention. The Bohemian is not, like the creature of society, a victim of rules and customs… Above all others, the Bohemian must not be narrow-minded.”
She goes on to say that Bohemians do not strive to be poor. They are poor because they have eschewed more stable ways of earning a living to pursue life more freely. Bohemians like Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane were good examples of artists who embraced the idea of creative freedom, who eschewed the mainstream and remained on the fringe even after success.
Not all artists are bohemian, but they all-too-often share the common trait of being poor. For Edward MacDowell, who was employed as a professor and struggled to carve out time to make new work, creating a colony was a brilliant scheme to temporarily free artists from their everyday commitments to work and commerce. The Colony is a kind of sanctioned bohemia, one that works particularly well within a capitalist economy where the state only slimly supports artists. MacDowell provides opportunity for research and development for ideas that may or may not register in the commercial marketplace. And residency programs have proven their worth many times over and are today one of our country’s most copied ideas. In the past twenty years there has been an explosion of these sorts of programs internationally.
The Colony has been awarding the Edward MacDowell Medal, a prestigious lifetime achievement award, for 53 years. Past recipients include visual artists Robert Frank, Edward Hopper, Louise Bourgeois, and Georgia O’Keeffe; composers Leonard Bernstein and Sonny Rollins; architect I.M. Pei; filmmakers Chuck Jones and Stan Brakhage; interdisciplinary artist Merce Cunningham; writers Robert Frost, William Styron, Eudora Welty, and Joan Didion; and playwrights Thornton Wilder and Edward Albee.
Photographer Nan Goldin was the 2012 medal recipient. Goldin is known for her highly personal photographs of friends and lovers coping with AIDS, physical abuse, and addiction. Luc Sante, chairman of this year’s Medalist selection committee, said,“Nan Goldin’s photographs of her life, her friends, and her family—unflinchingly honest, nakedly emotional, sometimes brutal, but most often tender —redefined the autobiographical use of photography and influenced everyone who has come after her.” Sante, who introduced Goldin during the event, described the artist as a “visual diarist” who tries “to freeze time” by capturing her friends at the beach, at parties, in bed. “The moment is the subject,” Sante said. They are “emphatically not snapshots.”