An artist's place: MacDowell

MacDowell makes a place in the world for artists, because art makes the world a better place

Screen Shot 2020 11 24 At 9 38 57 AM During challenging times, many turn to favorite artists to provide comfort, entertainment, or enlightenment in the form of books, movies, music, visual art, and countless other media. Artists provide beauty and escapism when we need it most, as well as the illuminating stories and probing questions that help us make sense of the world around us.

One organization that supports artists by giving them the time and space they need to create is the nonprofit MacDowell residency program. For more than a century, MacDowell has fostered artistic creativity on its 450 acres in Peterborough, New Hampshire – a bucolic haven that has inspired countless works of art, by offering creative individuals of the highest talent an inspiring environment in which they can produce enduring works of the imagination.

Each year, about 300 fellowships are awarded to artists in seven disciplines: architecture, film & video arts, interdisciplinary arts, literature, music composition, theatre, and visual arts. A fellowship consists of exclusive use of a private studio, accommodations, and three prepared meals a day for as long as two months.

More than 15,000 artists have been supported with MacDowell fellowships, including the winners of 93 Pulitzer Prizes, 33 National Book Awards, 31 Tony Awards, 33 MacArthur Fellowships, 17 Grammys, nine Academy Awards, 868 Guggenheim Fellowships, 111 Rome Prizes, and eight National Medals for the Arts.

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John W. Hession photo, courtesy of MacDowell

MacDowell's beginnings

The story of how it all began starts in 1896, when composer Edward MacDowell and pianist Marian MacDowell bought a farm in Peterborough — a place where they spent summers creating, unencumbered, in peaceful surroundings.

When Edward fell prematurely ill, he shared a wish with Marian — to provide other artists with the opportunity to create in this place of natural wonder where he thrived.

Inspired and unyielding, Marian set about realizing the dream and searching for financial support to create an artistic retreat that provided community, natural inspiration, and cross-disciplinary stimulation.

In 1907, as a result of her eff orts, one of the nation’s first artist residencies was born. And it became Marian’s mission to sustain it. She traveled tirelessly across the country, offering piano recitals of her husband’s work, as she sought support for the MacDowell residencies, then called the “Peterborough Experiment.” Marian’s call was answered by organizations run by women: The women’s music sorority, Sigma Alpha Iota, and the National Federation of Music Clubs both bolstered Marian’s advocacy and recognized MacDowell’s contribution to American culture.

The mission that began with a selfless wish has flourished for more than 113 years and has held steadfast throughout its many phases of leadership. Former MacDowell Board Chair Michael Chabon encapsulated the mission when he said, “We need to give artists the freedom to fail and the space to succeed.” By emulating those words, MacDowell has continued to inspire artistic experimentation, creation, creativity, growth, and expression in a unique and reverent setting.

Reinvention for a remote world
As the calendar turned to March 2020 and we faced the public health threat of COVID-19, MacDowell decided to responsibly press pause on its program to ensure the health and safety of its artists and staff.

But with time for reflection came reinvention. In collaboration with Monadnock Community Hospital, MacDowell began to offer its studios to medical professionals working on the front lines of COVID-19, offering them a safe place to lay their heads without fear of potentially infecting vulnerable family members. A place previously inhabited by poets, painters, writers, architects, and composers now offering shelter to heroic front-line workers, whose selfless eff orts to keep us safe continued during these most challenging times.

Simultaneously, MacDowell leveraged its website in order to keep its community connected. More than 214 MacDowell Fellows have gathered since March for virtual reunions, to share work, discuss their experiences, and commiserate when needed. They have posted playlists and shared resources to help artists weather the pandemic. And in alignment with the Movement for Black Lives, MacDowell curated a social justice “conversation” — a place where artistic works that address our current moment as well as earlier anti-racist activism could be shared. Part Two of that effort is now online.

MacDowell’s commitment to removing barriers to participation continued in August with its first-ever Virtual MacDowell experience, inviting artists whose residencies had been postponed in April and May. This fully online program has helped to foster connections and foresee a future for those who are unable to attend in person. Since then, MacDowell has worked to safely welcome a limited cohort of fellows back to their grounds for the first time since March 2020 and remains committed to honoring its history and evolving its mission so they can continue to serve artists and responsibly step into the future.

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Ngoc Minh Ngo photo, courtesy of MacDowell

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Ngoc Minh Ngo photo, courtesy of MacDowell

John W. Hession photo, courtesy of MacDowell

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Nell Painter

Author, Visual Artist, and Chair of MacDowell's Board of Directors

For Nell Painter, her first year as Chair of MacDowell’s Board of Directors was an unusual one, but her leadership through a challenging and vitally important moment in the organization’s history and the history of our country has been nothing short of inspired.

Painter, the author of The New York Times bestseller, The History of White People, and the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Old In Art School, was named chair of the board in January 2020, succeeding novelist and screenwriter Michael Chabon, who held the position since December 2010.

“Nell Painter has formidable gifts, and one of the most remarkable minds on the American scene,” said Chabon. “She is a powerhouse, and all of us at MacDowell feel fortunate and grateful to have her in our community.”

Painter, a two-time MacDowell Fellow, is a distinguished and award-winning scholar and writer. A graduate of Harvard, she went on to become the Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University and is the author of seven books and countless articles relating to the history of the American South. Painter’s book, The History of White People, is a guide through more than 2,000 years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race but the frequent praise of “whiteness.” Her book, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, won the nonfiction prize of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

Painter is also the author of Southern History Across the Color Line, which bridges the divides that have compartmentalized southern history, women’s history, and African American history by focusing on relationships among men and women of different races.

From 1997-2000 Painter directed the program in African American Studies at Princeton, retired from academia in 2005, and returned to school to earn a B.F.A. in art from Rutgers and an M.F.A. in painting from Rhode Island School of Design in 2011. Her chronicle of that experience, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, which was completed during Painter’s first MacDowell residency in 2016, was s a 2018 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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