PETERBOROUGH — It’s a hot day, reaching into the 90s. But inside Colony Hall, the main building of the famed MacDowell Colony, the cool air of the morning has been captured and is being churned by big ceiling fans that rotate slowly in graceful cadence.
David Macy, 57, who has been resident director of MacDowell for a quarter century, strolls through the expansive central atrium and sits at a table in a screened-in veranda off to the side of the main room.
An aura of relaxation and calm surrounds him. His manner of dress is informal yet classy, and it’s obvious he pays attention to his appearance — right down to his eyewear, which is a lighter-colored reproduction of the traditional tortoise-shell glasses men frequently wore a half-century ago.
“It doesn’t pay to get too hepped up. I learned from my father to maintain an even keel,” he says, describing the way he manages the day-to-day operations at the colony.
It is often referred to simply as “The MacDowell,” and is widely considered the best artist-in-residence program in the United States — an institution with a long history, deep pedigree, a prestigious board and wealthy benefactors.
“We are the lodestar in programs such as ours,” he says, though there’s no braggadocio in his tone.
But then he doesn’t have to brag; the record speaks for itself. Among the luminaries who have passed through its gates are Leonard Bernstein, Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, Aaron Copland, Willa Cather, E.L. Doctorow, Jonathan Franzen, and about 8,300 other artists, composers and writers since it opened in 1907. Among its illustrious alumni are the winners of 86 Pulitzer Prizes, 31 National Book Awards, 30 Tony Awards, 32 MacArthur Fellowships, 15 Grammys, eight Oscars and 828 Guggenheim Fellowships.
“I recall the first sentence of the job description when I applied for the job here,” he says. “To create and nurture an unpressured atmosphere conducive to creative work.”
What MacDowell does, he explains, is unburden its residents of their day-to-day cares — worries and stresses that may clutter their minds in their normal environments —and transport them to a place where creative energy can flow forth.
Helping engineer that, he says, requires that MacDowell operate in a way that is soothing to its residents. “We don’t want signs around saying don’t do this, don’t do that. We want to make the place seem intuitive. The place should feel easy for the residents here.”
Still, it takes some doing to run an operation with 40 “cottages,” also called studios, located among more than 400 acres, with five miles of roads. Each year, MacDowell hosts about 300 artists of various media, the average stay about a month. The residents eat breakfast and dinner together in the Colony House. But lunch is delivered to their cottages in a picnic basket, in a tradition begun by Marian MacDowell, who co-founded the colony with her husband, Edward.
MacDowell’s organizational chart begins with a chairman and president, as well as an executive director, all of whom work out of New York City. A panel selects the artists in residence from an applicant pool, and the experience is free to those chosen. Macy’s the man on the ground in Peterborough.
The road to MacDowell
As with many people who eventually find their niche, Macy finding himself at MacDowell is a story of several chance occurrences.
Born and raised in Hudson, Ohio, a city about the size of Keene that’s equidistant between Akron and Cleveland, he first attended Case Western Reserve University, planning to become a bioengineer.
“I couldn’t see myself in a laboratory every day,” he says, and left before graduation. He then briefly attended the Cleveland Institute of Art before embarking on a trip with his then wife that first found them working as tree planters for paper companies in Mississippi and Alabama.
From there, they moved to California, where he worked a series of jobs, including as a caretaker on a ranch. A neighbor there was a landscape designer whose father worked at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program south of San Francisco. From the father, he learned about a job opening as resident director at Djerassi, which had been started by Carl Djerassi, the Stanford University professor credited as one of the three inventors of the birth control pill. Macy was hired and worked there for three years before being hired at MacDowell in 1994.
Macy’s single exposure to New Hampshire before taking the MacDowell job was a pass-through drive on his way to Bangor, Maine. “It was all new to me,” he says, and he had to learn the ways of New Englanders.
“I read Jud Hale’s book, ‘(The) Education of a Yankee,’ and that helped,” he says. Hale, editor emeritus of Yankee Magazine in nearby Dublin, published the book — a memoir about growing up in the very proper Brahmin world in Boston — in 1987.
MacDowell trustees asked Macy to build a stronger relationship between the colony and the Peterborough community, which had been lacking in previous years, he says.
Macy went about starting a program called MacDowell and the Schools, in which colony artists volunteer to instruct local students. He also instituted MacDowell Downtown, where an artist or writer makes a presentation in Bass Hall in town on the first Friday of every month from March through November. Additionally, Macy is active in various arts-related programs in Peterborough, and headed up the group that put together the town’s strategic marketing plans to buttress its development as a destination for artists.
Every year, too, MacDowell hosts Medal Day, during which the community is invited to an outdoor gala honoring the recipient of the Edward MacDowell Medal, as well as being able to visit the artists’ studios. This year’s event will be held Sunday, Aug. 11, and honor Charles Gaines, a leader for more than 40 years in what’s called the “conceptual art movement.” Past winners of the medal, first awarded in 1960, include John Updike, David Lynch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Sonny Rollins and Stephen Sondheim.
Macy says one of the great benefits of his job is rubbing shoulders with smart and creative people. “I think the interesting thing is the interaction among the residents,” he says, and observing the different personalities, learning their interests and listening to the conversations. Although some residents may already be titans in their fields while others aren’t yet well known, there is a shared sense of community among them, he notes.
The residents generally spend much of their time in solitary work, and a large bell on the front porch of Colony Hall is rung to summon them to breakfast and dinner. Macy, who lives on site, attends the breakfast each day so he can mingle.
There are a few quaint traditions, as well. For example, each cottage has what’s called a “tombstone,” a plank of wood bearing the signatures of previous residents, to which the current resident adds his or her name. Also, some of the artists volunteer to be the nightly “chicken wrangler” who must lead the hens back to the coop at dusk. “It’s an honored position,” Macy says.
“The physical plant quality of the environment here has a direct impact on the quality of the work done by the residents.”
Macy’s other primary concern is the quality and morale of the colony’s employees. “The staff culture here is what sets it apart from other programs. There is no one here just punching a clock, and I want to steward that culture.”
Freelance writer and author Paul Hertneky of Hancock describes Macy as “an extremely loyal friend” who is entertaining, engaging and fun to be around. “He’s devoted to the colony, and by that, I mean the people who work for him. He’s a problem-solver. He cares.”
Macy says his relaxed nature guides his management style.
“I also know that I’m wrong a lot of the time; I don’t need to be right all the time. That’s a fool’s mission.”
The job is certainly demanding, but Macy doesn’t allow it to overwhelm him.
“I’ve learned there’s a time to put the pencil down. I think I have a good work-life balance,” he says.
“I really want to have a pleasant life; I don’t want everything to be a struggle. I want to navigate through the world with people with good energy and people who make you laugh, and I want to be that for others.”