Why MacDowell NOW? Without Artists There is no Justice

Philip Himberg - January 19, 2021

Type: Buildings & Grounds, Artist News, Fellowships

John W. Alexander Studio at night. (Xiaomin Gu photo)

Without artists there is no justice – Darren Walker, president of The Ford Foundation

Dear MacDowell Family,

Nearing the eve of a democracy's precious transfer of power, and in the wake of shocking violence in our country's capital, I have been thinking a great deal about how the mission of MacDowell and other artist residencies impacts our daily lives, and what responsibilities we assume when new political leadership is forged, and hopeful visions are launched and set to sail.

As I write, 13 artists are sheltered in our Peterborough studios, at a vastly reimagined residency. What they have: safe and well-appointed spaces in which to create and rest, and three nourishing meals delivered daily to their doors. They also have access to MacDowell's James Baldwin Library and to a multitude of beautiful pathways and landscapes across our campus. What they lack at this time: communal dining, where in normal times, ideas and questions ricochet across the room, sparking new ideas and new inquiries, and they lack the opportunity to visit each other's studios. We anticipate that these missing aspects to MacDowell's program will find their way back over the course of this coming year.

I have often thought of MacDowell as the proverbial "pebble in the pond." We exist as a setting, a platform for art makers. We are the birthplace of new projects, as well as a venue where burgeoning work is re-examined, re-imagined, re-edited, and often completed. The artists' pebbles, those quarried stones of creativity, are dropped into the consciousness of our world and their ripple effects pulsate into museums, galleries, libraries, onto stages and concert halls, being amplified into our minds and hearts.

This is what we call transformation and it presages provocation, progress, and enlightenment.

But what about the work that remains halted during this ongoing Pandemic? What about the real-life struggles of artists who have been forced in these times to surrender their home studios, or who have lost their livelihoods, were obliged to relocate, and in many instances, ceased making work altogether in order to support their families? We remember that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) artists are much more likely to have lost opportunity during this time and often have less access to support. When there are no creative pebbles to cast, fling, or propel, what ensues is still water, silence. "Dreams deferred," as Langston Hughes taught us. In the place of wake-up calls, what fierce inspiration has dissipated? What unimagined beauty may we have lost?

At the end of 2020, amid the maelstrom of COVID surges and vitriol against our election, I lost my brother. The ritual of speaking the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for dead, was bequeathed to me one day under a grey and cold sky. It was hard not to imagine that this setting for grief was designed as perfect lamentation weather. The actual reciting of the Kaddish is a kind of cleansing, and purposefully there is not one word of "Death" in the prayer. Its theme is rather an expression of awe for the entire universe, a reverence for each individual human being. It is also a prayer beseeching peace between nations, between people, and for peace of mind.

I wonder who will say Kaddish for the art we lost this year and may continue to lose. Who will sanctify the loss of our independent publishers and booksellers, the darkened theatrical stages, or the echoes of now-vacant concert halls and galleries?

Because art must and will survive, we carry hope. On many of those same stages, one light has never been extinguished – the "ghost light." Just as the loss of a loved one kindles our hearts and becomes the blaze of our energies, this theatrical convention reflects a kind of veneration, a wonderment. Practically speaking the light is turned on when a theater is dark to prevent accidents – but that iconic light has assumed a deeper poetic significance during these times. For months now and across the globe, ghost lights have burned as a kind of defiance against the darkness around us. On Broadway, across New York, across America, and indeed across the world, ghost lights await the knowing return of artists and audiences to their storytelling spaces, honoring the creative art makers who will continue to illuminate the path forward.

As a new chapter of our democracy spins ahead, all 32 of MacDowell's studios will, without question, re-ignite. Not only will the physical spaces brighten, but legions of creative souls will populate our 114-year-old campus, preserving the great legacy of our founders. More than honoring the past, these storytellers will regenerate, reconstruct, and revolutionize the way we see the world.

As I light the Yahrzeit candle in memory of my brother, this act is much more than memorial. It is "intention." And intention is what each and every artist holds in their fists – along with the pebbles, stones, and gems that will change the world.

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