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Inside the Artists’ Studio

Library Exhibit Opens Doors of Famed Colony

What do Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” and Aaron Copeland’s “Billy the Kid” have in common?

All three iconic works were penned in part at The MacDowell Colony, a rural sanctuary in Southwestern New Hampshire that for 100 years has served as a respite for American painters, writers, composers and other artists.

In honor of the centenary of the colony’s founding, the Library of Congress recently launched “A Century of Creativity: The MacDowell Colony, 1907 to 2007,” an exhibit that delves into the history of the United States’ oldest existing artists’ colony and highlights some of the works produced by those who have lived and worked there over the years.

The story of the colony’s founding is rooted in the partnership between American composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian. The couple, who met in Europe in the early 1880s when she was his music student, bought the original farm where the colony is located in Peterborough, N.H., in 1896. It initially served as a summer escape from their busy city lives in New York, where Edward MacDowell headed Columbia University’s music department until a falling out with the administration led to his resignation in 1904.

After being run over by a Hansom cab that same year, MacDowell began to undergo a physical and mental breakdown (exhibit curator Robin Rausch said some scholars have suggested he was also suffering from tertiary syphilis), and various friends and supporters in the Mendelssohn Glee Club, of which MacDowell had been a former director, banded together to form a fund to provide for his care. (Andrew Carnegie and Grover Cleveland were among its contributors.)

But “Marian MacDowell insisted that she had enough money to take care of him and she suggested that this fund be used to turn their farm into this artists’ retreat,” which would fulfill his wishes, Rausch said. The glee club and the MacDowell Club of New York — which advocated his ideas about the inter-relationship of the arts — subsequently partnered to form an association that took legal possession of the farm, with Marian as the “brains” behind the organization. [IMGCAP(1)]

Within a year of the colony’s founding, however, Edward MacDowell was dead. And Marian MacDowell, then 50, took up its cause — staging elaborate pageants and music festivals on the colony grounds to gin up publicity and traveling the country giving concerts and lectures (in 1915, thanks to her efforts, there were nearly 150 MacDowell Clubs in the United States in places such as Salt Lake City and Cincinnati). She would continue to work to promote and raise funds for the colony until her death at age 98 in 1956, even after the colony’s board relieved her of her managerial duties in 1946, Rausch said.

Since the colony’s opening in 1907 with just two artists — the sister team of sculptor Helen Farnsworth Mears and writer Mary Mears — the list of luminaries that have paraded through the doors of the 32 diminutive studios have included everyone from writers James Baldwin and Spalding Gray to artists Benny Andrews and Milton Avery to Leonard Bernstein, who composed his famous “Mass” for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center while at the colony. Located on 450 acres in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, The MacDowell Colony continues to attract high-profile names, such as authors Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen.

Beyond serving as a retreat for artists to work, the colony’s environs have also inspired great art. For instance, Wilder’s “Our Town,” which is set in the fictional village of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is based in part on the tiny Peterborough. (You’ll even find a Gibbs family plot in the local cemetery — the surname of the play’s main characters.)

Many of the artists have returned year after year. Poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, for instance, first arrived in 1911 so skeptical of the “colony” experience that he carried with him a faux telegram calling him away for an emergency should he find the place untenable. But he grew so attached to it that he returned each year until his death in 1935. Meanwhile, composer Louise Talma spent 43 seasons, beginning in 1943 and ending in 1995, at the colony.

And for good reason. The stays have been described as idyllic. “One summer of it in one of the isolated studios, with an open wood fire, would undo you for life,” Robinson once wrote. Painted picnic baskets (one of these decorated by a former fellow is included in the show) are delivered daily at lunchtime to each cabin. Past occupants of each studio are charmingly memorialized on wooden tombstones that adorn the walls and feature their signatures and the dates of residency.

While not as well-known for its romantic assignations as another premier artists’ colony, Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — according to a saying: “The sex is better at Yaddo but the work is better at MacDowell” — MacDowell certainly has had its affairs, and the exhibit even makes note of one marriage that emerged from a meeting at the colony — that of “Porgy” author DuBose Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, Rausch said.

The MacDowell Colony exhibit is a natural fit for the Library, whose relationship with the MacDowells dates to 1903 when Edward MacDowell gave the Library the manuscript of his musical composition “Indian Suite,” which helped launch its collection of American musical autographs. In addition, The MacDowell Colony archive is housed in the Library’s manuscript division, while the music division is the repository for the Edward and Marian MacDowell papers.

“A Century of Creativity: The MacDowell Colony, 1907 to 2007” will be on display through Aug. 18 in the American Treasures exhibit space in the Library’s Jefferson Building from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

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