Local Government: McDowell Not Advancing Spiritual or Intellectual Well-Being of General Public
But nothing stays idyllic forever. Enter the local government:
Of course, the town cites its elderly residents on fixed incomes struggling to pay rising tax bills as their motivation for deciding now, after a century, that McDowell's mission is not charitable enough to warrant its tax-exempt status. But as local auto mechanic Scott MacKenzie said in the article cite above, it sounds like the town is just getting greedy. There are details that make this less than a open-and-shut case, and since I don't live in Peterborough, I'll refrain from pontificating. But the rationale behind the change in attitude revolves around an opinion I don't mind weighing in on.
For nearly a century, the famed artists' retreat has welcomed thousands of writers, composers and others who enjoy up to two months of rent-free solitude and support. Within its rustic stone and clapboard cottages, Thornton Wilder wrote ''Our Town,'' Aaron Copland composed ''Appalachian Spring'' and Dobuse and Dorothy Heyward wrote ''Porgy and Bess.'' More recently, Jonathan Franzen finished writing ''The Corrections'' and Alice Sebold worked on ''The Lovely Bones.''
For decades, the town considered the colony a tax-exempt charitable organization. But after reviewing similar groups from the hospital to the historical society, the Board of Selectmen decided the colony no longer is eligible for the exemption.
State law defines a charitable organization as one that advances ''the spiritual, physical, intellectual, social or economic well-being of the general public or a substantial and indefinite segment of the general public that includes residents of the state of New Hampshire.''
Again, New Hampshire law considers a charity any organization that advances ''the spiritual, physical, intellectual, social or economic well-being of the general public or a substantial and indefinite segment of the general public that includes residents of the state of New Hampshire.''
The MacDowell Colony certainly benefits its artists-in-residence, but ''that doesn't strike us as being the general public,'' said Bob Derosier, one of the town's lawyers.OK, so that's a bit disingenuous of Mr. Derosier. Many New Hampshire artists have had residencies at McDowell, including Peterborough Selectman Liz Thomas (also a writer), who is among those who believe the Colony should pay more taxes unfortunately (they already pay $9000/year property taxes on land that's not used for their central mission). More than that, however, McDowell provides local programs it considers worth more money than what the town is asking for, like workshops in the schools and monthly discussions led by the artists-in-residence. None of that will relieve the elderly residents' property tax burdens, of course, but it does suggest the Colony is, by state law, a bona fide charity.
''From what we understand, their primary purpose is nurturing artists of the highest merit,'' he said.
But let's back up and look again at what the town's lawyer is arguing. In a nutshell he's saying that "nurturing artists of the highest merit" does not serve to advance "the spiritual, physical, intellectual, social or economic well-being of the general public." Unless the residents of Peterborough have never every listened to "Appalachian Spring'' or ''Porgy and Bess'' or seen "Our Town" or read the works of the hundreds of writers who've benefited from the uninterrupted time to work, or been uplifted by the work of thousands of visual artists who've made work there (a very short list of contemporaries includes Ji Yun-Fei, Lisa Yuskavage, Amy Sillman, Justine Kurland, Renee Cox, and Polly Apfelbaum), then I'd submit the general public's spiritual, intellectual, and social well-being has indeed been advanced by the Colony's mission.
But that's just me....