Colonial Legacy: MacDowell Colony Executive Director Cheryl Young
MOLLY SHERIDAN: Why don’t we start out talking a little bit about your history with the MacDowell Colony. I know you came on board leading the development department with your great work with their endowment and now you’re executive director of the colony.
CHERYL YOUNG: When I first came to MacDowell I hadn’t known very much about the place. I grew up in Massachusetts and had always been interested in the arts. When I heard about this position I decided it was time for me to move to New York because the development office for MacDowell was in New York and had been for many years. The executive director then, Mary Carswell, was fairly new in her position as well. She said [to me] that we have an opportunity to do something wonderful for this wonderful place. So I moved to New York and began to immerse myself in all the different aspects of the colony–it being not just for composing, but visual art, writing, filmmaking, and so forth. All the different arts that I enjoy were incorporated in one position, which really made it wonderful. We applied for a challenge grant and had gotten it–actually when I arrived we had already worded it–and we went about raising around three million dollars in the endowment campaign to meet that challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That was very successful. The endowment at that time was only about three million dollars to begin with, so we had doubled it, which was terrific. Then we immediately applied for another grant from the NEA for winterizing the studios. That took us another leap forward, about another million and a half was raised for that. Then the [stock] market took off, so MacDowell is in really good shape financially. There are no fees for the residency program and that’s mostly because of people who believe in the whole idea that was started by Edward MacDowell.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: When I saw the PBS documentary that outlined the history of this place, it was really touching. I’m wondering if you could just summarize it…I realize it’s a ton of information. It all started with the relationship between this wonderful couple…
CHERYL YOUNG: There’s no question that, as they say, things are meant to be. Edward MacDowell was a visual artist as well as a composer when he was very young. He applied to study music and art at the same time and was accepted into an arts academy in Paris to study under a composer. He chose the composing route in the end. So he was abroad learning music but he was also taking in students. One of the students was Marian MacDowell who grew up in Connecticut. They fell in love and were married in 1885. They lived abroad a few years while he continued to study and work. Then they moved back to the United States living in Boston for a few years. He worked mainly on his compositions and they had a very, very simple life. Then he accepted a position at Columbia University as their first music professor and they decided to move to New York. One of the things that happened during the course of that was that Mrs. MacDowell said that she fell in love with a composer and not a teacher, even though he was her teacher. She really felt badly that he couldn’t devote more time to his writing and his music. So what they would do each summer is go up to New Hampshire and he would work on his music in the summer, as most professors do no matter what the discipline. She started to build him a separate studio because even when he was working in the house he was distracted by all the things that were going on in the household. She built him a log cabin a short walk, about a quarter of a mile, from the house. He would go out there everyday. She would pack up a lunch for him and he would go out and do his work. It’s where he was really able to focus on his work. He later became ill and they knew he didn’t have much time. One of the things they discussed is what they would do. What would she do with the rest of her life? What could they do with the studio they’d created for him? They decided to create this artist colony. It wasn’t a new idea, but I think it was new in that the programs that existed for short-term residencies were all sending Americans abroad. He was a founding trustee for the American Academy in Rome. Of course the idea there is a multidisciplinary one, as well as for artists to see another world and be inspired by another culture. One of the things he realized was that being in a community where you are learning constantly from other people is very inspiring for art and for creative purposes in general, but that there was no reason to leave the country to do it. You could create that kind of environment for the short term that you were in residence with these other individuals. He wanted to try that here. That’s what Marian MacDowell took on. They had their first artist in residency before he passed away in 1908. They had two artists come in 1907…
MOLLY SHERIDAN: The sisters?
CHERYL YOUNG: Yes the Mayer sisters. I think one was a sculptor, and one was a writer. They [the MacDowells] had actually built another studio at that point. The log cabin was used, but then it just took off. The founding of the colony itself we say is 1907. That’s when it was incorporated. Because it was a new model–short-term residencies here in this country–a place was built specifically for this. The colony model is permanent residence, where people would actually move to a neighborhood. Provincetown, Massachusetts is a very old artist colony, but people live there more or less permanently and the idea of community is a permanent community, or at least for most of the year. He just felt that the practical realities of needing to work and needing to have another life make it impossible sometimes to do that kind of thing. The idea that you would come for a month, or two months was really not something that had been done. Certainly building studios specifically for this purpose hadn’t been done. When Mrs. MacDowell went to her patrons and said, “This is what I’d like to do,” they said it was an insane idea. “It’s not practical! It’s a folly!” And she said, “No, this will work.” So she devoted the rest of her life, fifty years, to it. She started it in her fifties. She was a pianist, so naturally at the very beginning she was able to welcome quite a number of fine composers to come. She started a wonderful network of people who would nominate, that’s how it was done originally, by references.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: Did she continue to live there full time and interact with the artists?
CHERYL YOUNG: She did. She lived on the property in the farmhouse that she and Edward had purchased. It’s called Hillcrest and the studios are sprinkled on the acreage around the farmhouse. The immediate acreage she immediately started to expand and she bought all the property adjacent to it. She knew that she wanted the artists to have privacy so bought lots of land so she could build roads going out through the property. She herself designed the whole site plan, where to put the studios and so fourth. Originally, they used some farm buildings, but most were built. She went out and she raised money and got these buildings built. By 1930, by the time she had really finished what I call the startup phase and then the growth phase, she had about twenty studios built.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: What do you think her motivation was for all of this? Obviously this one woman, who had amazing tenacity if nothing else, has had a huge impact on American culture. You could look at the history of past residents and list off hundreds of works that have impacted American society and the world cultural community.
CHERYL YOUNG: That’s true.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: It’s just this one woman. What do you think about that?
CHERYL YOUNG: I think it was a sincerity of purpose. I think being around artists and knowing the creative process intimately as she did–watching Edward struggle through it, and she herself as a pianist–she knew how difficult it was to create something original and so forth. I think she felt there was not a support system for that process to happen. At the turn of the century, the government wasn’t as strong. It could barely take care of all the social causes out there. There was a whole movement of that period to try and improve society through universities, libraries, and academies of art. Just in terms of basic quality of life issues as well, like hospitals, health care, and education. She just felt this was part and parcel of that. She knew the only way to do it is for the individuals who care about it to take that responsibility on. It was very much a part of what I’d call the American experience of just doing it. She just gathered up people who were likeminded. Once there was a track record of a few decades, she was able to put out examples–this experiment will work. It wasn’t a vanity at all. First of all, she didn’t have money, really. They had a very small pension. So it wasn’t that she wanted her name on it, although I think she wanted Edward’s name on it to perpetuate his legacy. But he believed very strongly in this idea that artists can inspire one another through a multidisciplinary artist community. So she wanted his legacy to continue. It certainly wasn’t about Mrs. MacDowell; it wasn’t about her and what she could do. It was really about believing in the idea so strongly.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: As far as philanthropy goes, it’s pretty interesting. It wasn’t that she was pulling money from her own pocket.
CHERYL YOUNG: Right.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: Whenever she wanted to do something, she went out and got somebody else to pay for it. It was her idea, but…
CHERYL YOUNG: Well, she also concertized. She called it “concertizing.” She was a very good interpreter of his work, I’m sure that’s why they fell in love. She was so sympathetic and understood his music. So she would go out and raise money by holding these free concerts. It was very much grassroots. There were MacDowell clubs all over the country–especially with the tragic story, it definitely caught people’s imagination–and she would go out to Norman, Oklahoma and have a concert. Women’s clubs all across the country supported her, as well as sororities, fraternities, and the National Federation of Music Clubs. And she was very charismatic, as was he. I’ve been reading about his life recently because we’re preparing for the centennial, and people have called him a man of genius, rare in his insight and so forth. I think when you get two very charismatic people both together at the same point, there’s no question that something will ignite. It did certainly in the case of the colony. It really was the model for many to follow because once the track record was demonstrated, then others who wanted to do the same thing learn from the things she tried to do. She stopped and started. Not everything was a straight line. She had some ideas, or donors would come to her with ideas for an exhibition space on the property and she would try it. John White Alexander was a great painter, he was a friend of Edward MacDowell’s, and when he passed away his wife said, wouldn’t it be great if there were an exhibition gallery on the property of the colony for the painters to use. After a few years of doing that, Mrs. MacDowell said, this isn’t good having people on the property. So the gallery was turned into an artist studio. She created a pageant theater, an outdoor amphitheater, after a few years of having very spectacular outdoor festivals. She had commissioned works from composers for this pageant and it was a huge success in the town, but it took a whole year to plan. She said, “I can’t spend my time doing this.” This is getting in the way of the larger purpose of having the artist colony work. She had, what I would call, a true path. She would always go back to the mission after she discovered how it impacted that central mission. She was extremely intelligent in terms of fundraising, there’s no question. She understood what motivated people. She also knew that people were just looking for a solid place to put their wealth. In other words, that their investment would be spent wisely. She was always careful and practical, trying not to be too extravagant in some of the architectural ideas, and conserving funds. For several years she had a working farm and she fed the artists as well as provided space for them.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: MacDowell was the first of its kind in this country…
CHERYL YOUNG: Yes, in terms of being built specifically for that purpose. Yes, definitely. As I said, there was this whole movement at the time. I think there were others that started up and had failed. Yaddo had started up about the same time but because of the economics of the timeóthere was a recessionóthey didn’t really get going for another twenty years. I forget which year they actually had artists in residence, but it was sometime after.
MOLLY SHERIDAN: It probably influenced a great number of the others….
CHERYL YOUNG: Oh, it still does. We still get phone calls from people… (Laughing) “I want to start an artist colony and I heard about MacDowell all this time.” The Alliance of Artists Communities, which is the national association of residency programs, now has about seventy-five institutional members, many of them within the last twenty years. They all have a slightly different program or their own take on the central idea of a residency. They may be for women. They may be about involving community in art. They may be about environmental issues or social causes. Or they may only be discipline-specific residencies. There’s definitely been a renaissance. I just got back from the Res Artis meeting and there were two hundred programs across the globe. I think many of them are fairly recent. I was joking with somebody about how old we were and they were astonished to learn that we were founded at the turn of the century. I think we’re the oldest across the globe at this point, as far as it can be established. Again, I think that the fact that its privately funded, the idea that it’s in the country instead of sending people abroad, and that there’s no expectation of a product at the end of it are some of the hallmark ideas behind it. It has definitely taken off. People take that idea and expand on it.