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A Challenge In Three Acts and Contingent Contingencies

Philip Himberg and David Macy - May 20, 2020

Type: Buildings & Grounds

Dear Friends,

We are taking a brief hiatus from our series of bi-monthly essays, penned by MacDowell Fellows, on “Why MacDowell Now?” for two staff members to reflect on these present days – in New Hampshire and New York - as COVID-19 continues its unpredictable odyssey through planet Earth. We will return to ‘regularly scheduled programming’ with a new essay by novelist Susan Choi in our July issue. In the meantime, some impressions.

A Challenge in Three Acts: Report from New York
By Executive Director Philip Himberg

They tell us we are in the “epicenter.” I choose to believe that “epicenter” denotes more than malady: that it also implies possibility.

My devoted 10-member MacDowell NYC staff work from home and treasure our connections daily online. Though right now there is encouraging news that local hospitalizations have lessened, it is way too early to know what that may signify. Each of us attempts to interpret the trajectory of this pandemic across our world, scanning the same reports you all do, and we feel the haunting resonance of how this may affect our futures, that of our friends and relatives, and the family of MacDowell.

I see our challenges in three acts: the first being our immediate response to the virus. Holding tight to our core values, our communications team re-imagined our Website as a meaningful resource to our artist Fellows, continually aggregating as many opportunities as we can to aid them in these dire times. We also created an ever-expanding column, “MacDowell: We Are Here,” wherein our alumni regularly post “Playlists” of music, visual art, literature, drama, video, in the hopes of connecting to and inspiring one another.

Through all of this, our New York team continues to identify donors in an effort to bolster our “Artist Emergency Stipend Fund” and of course, ongoing General Operating Funds for the organization, which is imperative. The MacDowell Board of Directors have shown, as always, real leadership in their contributions and advocacy.

I keep reminding donors that a vacuum of real support at this time might well mean a void of new artist voices in the years ahead. Interestingly, what MacDowell provides – rare time and space for the most talented artists to create – will be more crucial as our country and the world look to re-build.

What do artists do? They brazenly experiment, they take risks. They stare at a blank canvas, or vacant page, or empty music staffs and imagine. Artists are the very individuals our world will look to for the most innovative ways forward. The “New Renaissance” – as I like to call it – will desperately need the ideas and voices of its emerging and established artists to boldly lead us into the new frontier. And so, my team in New York is passionately engaged with finding new sources of funding.

Act 2 of our repair and revitalization will be to innovate new programs for MacDowell artists until it is safe for studios to re-open. We are poised to announce a “Virtual Fellowship” soon. Stay tuned.

Finally, Act 3 will be the glorious re-opening of our Peterborough campus itself.

We do not know that date. But we work daily to assure that the next cohort of art makers will have a place and the support to do what they do best. Rest assured the doors of our studios will swing open and that the warmth of MacDowell shall embrace the next group of Fellows. The great work will continue, as it has for 113 years.

If you live in New York City, and venture out a bit, our avenues are largely empty. There is a Twilight Zone-like atmosphere that feels spooky and engenders anxiety and fear. And yet, the empty boulevards of this great city – like the empty canvas and pad of paper – imply possibility. As Sonya Renee Taylor wrote: “We will not go back to normal . . . we should not long to return. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

MacDowell will play one pivotal role in this next act.

Contingent Contingencies: Report from Peterborough
By Resident Director David Macy

In 2008, when the Great Recession was worming its way into the nightmares of retirees and teens alike, board member Peter Read made a keen observation pointing out the recurring nature of non-recurring events. Peter’s phrase popped into my mind when Librarian Colette Lucas discovered a clipping from Peterborough’s local newspaper circa 1918. While the Spanish flu was at large, Mrs. MacDowell offered solace to soldiers returning from the Great War in the form of a short stay in the peaceful shadow of Monadnock (see second image above). Twenty years later, the hurricane of 1938 ploughed a furrow of destruction from the shores of Connecticut through the middle of Peterborough, closing MacDowell for all of 1939 while the property was cleared of downed trees. Although the economic and political winds have shifted directions many times in the eight decades since, MacDowell has persisted, expanding in 1955 from a summer-only program to its current year-round model. In the aftermath of 2020’s non-recurring event, our program will necessarily include new precautions, but what won’t change will be the offer of timely support to the finest artists telling human stories of trauma and perseverance.

As I engage with more people outside MacDowell, many ask about our plans for reopening — the when, the how, and the who. While searching for words to respond, I find my brain accelerating into a maze-like space of contingent contingencies. For all of us, the act of making future plans has been fundamentally altered, with dates beyond this week opening a fractal world where each scenario is barnacled with questionable assumptions multiplying like Agent Smith in sequels to The Matrix.

The honest answer is that we don’t know. Everyone who asks probably knows this at some level, but for those of us who love this place and what it stands for, the dreadful possibility of enduring closure is an itch that must be a scratched.

In March, while in the process of closing the residency program, we made four moves with implications for the future:

  1. We asked artists slated to arrive in March through May to stay safe at home and await further news.
  2. We canceled the April 15th application deadline for fall-winter residencies.
  3. We asked successful applicants granted summer residencies (June through September) to sit tight and await further news.
  4. We contacted Monadnock Community Hospital to offer housing for their staff and first-responders whose family members might otherwise be put at risk.

Since April 3rd, MacDowell has been hosting a handful of hospital staff and we expect to do so as long as that support is needed.

Just yesterday, Admissions Director Courtney Bethel reached out to all those artists who’ve been wondering about future Fellowships. If safe operations can be re-invented before the end of this year, the spring Fellows who couldn’t arrive as planned will be the first offered new dates. While no timetable for reopening has yet been identified, crunching the numbers gives us hope that we might be able to serve most canceled artists within the year. Artists who successfully applied for the summer of 2020 will be transplanted to the summer of 2021. A few scenarios are in the works as to how we’ll handle the fall application deadline, but that decision can wait till August.

While we are waiting for statistically valid scientific information, it is heartening to reconnect with these artists and make just a bit of forward progress. When recalling the hurdles overcome in the past 113 years, it is safe to say that MacDowell will abide.