Saturday, November 12, 2005

Local Government: McDowell Not Advancing Spiritual or Intellectual Well-Being of General Public

The McDowell Colony, for anyone who doesn't know, is a world-class artists residency. Founded in 1907, it offers a care-free environment in a rustic setting to facilitate and inspire working composers, writers, visual artists, photographers, printmakers, filmmakers, architects, etc. etc. The colony has 32 private cabin-turned-studios spread out across 450 acres of wooded New Hampshire heaven. The composers' studios have pianos, the photographers' darkrooms, and visual artists have great light and lots of wall space in theirs. There are no telephones, and lunch is delivered quietly to the studio in picnic boxes, so there's nothing to distract the artists from the work at hand: making their art. Artists I know who've gone to McDowell simply rave about the conditions and how much work they get done. It does indeed sound about as good as it gets.

But nothing stays idyllic forever. Enter the local government:

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.''

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.

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.

''From what we understand, their primary purpose is nurturing artists of the highest merit,'' he said.
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.

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....


Blogger Bill Gusky said...

It's going to be very tough to win an argument for the arts with that crowd. I lived there for 4 years; this really is the northern tip of Appalachia. I remember when the parents of a 15-year-old girl were pleased as punch, for example, that she was dating a 30-year-old teacher at her high school.

There might be a writer or two on the McDowell town council, but I'd wager that the remaining seats are occupied by Mr. Haney, Hank Kimball, Fred and Doris Ziffel, and Floyd Smoot.

11/12/2005 12:36:00 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

> There might be a writer or two on the McDowell town council, but I'd wager that the remaining seats are occupied by Mr. Haney, Hank Kimball, Fred and Doris Ziffel, and Floyd Smoot.

I'm fairly certain Arnold Ziffel made some forays into the arts, though.

On a more serious note, the MacDowell Colony was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1997 for its contributions to our national greatness. So, why exactly do the Peterborough Selectmen hate America?

11/13/2005 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a residency at the Millay colony in upstate NY, which is similar in mission, if not in prestige, to MacDowell (I didn't get into MacD so I guess I'm not an artist of the highest merit). At the risk of sounding like an urban elitist, wtf is wrong with these local rednecks?? And how can we get them to believe that supporting artists is good for everyone? If they have achieved adulthood never having gone to the ballet, opera, theatre, or a museum, we, as artists and other cultural workers, don't speak their language and they don't speak ours so it's pretty hard to come up with a convincing argument that we should get any breaks at the public's expense.


11/13/2005 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Whoa, "o". As a southern, rural boy by upbringing, I cringe when I read urbanite attacks on backwoods bumkins ("wtf is wrong with these local rednecks?"). My laundry list of serious complaints about urbanites is at least as long as my redneck list.

Admittedly, "culture" isn't a priority in most small towns, whether located north or south of the Mason Dixon Line, and I too grow exasperated by the rural intolerance of most "progressive" art, but in this case the issue is more complex and difficult.

I dare say most McDowell residents do appreciate the majority of creative efforts coming out of the McDowell Colony, but when considering taxation they are likely to focus on the negative or shoddy work that is produced. This is a shame, but I do understand the thinking. Unpopular though this perspective may be, I believe that government sponsored arts programs usually have a negative impact on the arts, encouraging a surplus of ne'er-do-wells to "make art," thereby muddying the waters for those of us with the monkey on our back. (A quick look at the arts in Europe will confirm as much and even some of my European artist friends bemoan the playing field as too crowded by artists on the dole.) Sure, it's tough to make a living as an artist without a trust fund or government assistance and most of us take full-time jobs to pay the bills and work late into the night or all weekend on our "calling," but I believe such difficulties separate out the chaff, leaving the better, more committed artists to fight the good fight without so much distraction.

In this case, however, I hope that the town council will come to the conclusion that, on a local scale (as opposed to broad, federal efforts), such an institution need not be taxed. Whatever their decision, though, I don't doubt that they will continue believing the colony is less than charitable until it begins filling a New Hampshire resident quota or hosting pot luck dinners. In my experience, once a local colony such as McDowell opens it's arms to the community, the locals are all smiles. Let us hope such a marriage can happen without sacrificing the rewards offered by a stint at McDowell. I, like many artists, very much hope to spend some time there one day.

11/14/2005 03:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I apologize for the wtf remark; it was indeed prejudiced (although I was using the term "redneck" mostly to mean ignorant people, rather than as a regional slur).

It sounds like you are not against all government support for artists; just the extreme kind that they (used to) have in some European countries where artists were completely supported and their work wound up in vast warehouses because there was so much of it (and no one wanted it). What about relatively small grants here and there, like the NYFA yearly grants? Having gotten a couple of grants (both state- and private foundation-funded), I can say that they are very encouraging and validating (and give a little break from the day job) and I don't think they encourage too many amateurs because they are pretty competitive and hard to get.

I see your point about separating the wheat from the chaff, and if it weren't for all the millions (billions?) going to corporate welfare, not to mention war, (in other words, if the government's money was otherwise well-spent) I might agree with you. But what is spent on the arts, either in the form of tax breaks to places like MacDowell, or in other ways, is so miniscule comparatively that it's practically negligible. (I seem to recall some statistic about the amount spend on military marching bands vs. the arts; guess which was larger? hmm, I guess an argument could be made that military music is a form of art...but I digress)


11/14/2005 04:45:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...


You are right. I am not at all opposed to NYFA grants (and their like) or any of the many private foundations which offer financial awards to accepted artists. In fact, any grant - public or private - that has a rigorous application process is likely to receive an A-OK from me, particularly if it seeks to inject more diversity/perspectives into the Art World dialogue.

My beef is with the broad, federal funding of the sort you mention, particularly the art subsidy programs so renowned in Europe, many of which have collapsed due to bloating. Most of these do a fairly adequate job of rendering themselves extinct, but the Feed-Me-Seymour mentality remains present, even in the reactions against NEA cuts here in the States. I am much more ardent in my support of National Public Radio, for example, than I am government allowances for the NEA.

On the other hand, art spending is not a federal priority here, so I've no real reason to rant. However, the anti-handout, for lack of a better description, attitude is still very present in rural communities, where people believe everyone should work for a living. I've inherited this stubborn take, I suppose.

Ultimately, I think we agree, though. I'd certainly prefer McDowell Colony taxes go to arts and education spending, but then again, I'd prefer to select where my tax money goes, too. ;)

11/14/2005 06:02:00 PM  

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