Colonial Legacy: MacDowell Colony Executive Director Cheryl Young

Colonial Legacy: MacDowell Colony Executive Director Cheryl Young

MOLLY SHERIDAN: What was your relationship with Peterborough, which you mentioned is pretty close. I know that the idea is for the artists to be working there on their own, but is there an interaction with the community?

CHERYL YOUNG: The town has always been supportive from day one. Mrs. MacDowell was named Citizen of the Year in Peterborough when she was alive. We’ve always had a wonderful relationship with the town, but we’ve gone through periods where we’ve been more active or less active depending on the volunteers that we’ve had. But recently we established a program we call MacDowell Downtown where we have artists give presentations in the town of Peterborough. It’s voluntary. They let us know if they’d like to do it and it’s just started up. And then we also send artists into the schools in the local community. When people come, I think we really do try to make it clear that we don’t expect them to do anything but their work. It’s all about the process and whether anything comes out at the end of the residency is something we don’t talk about either. We don’t question it. You must send a project description so the panel knows what you’re thinking about, but you’re not held to that. You can do whatever you want once you get up here. And I think the fact that it’s a rural area and there aren’t a lot of distractions helps. The town is a lovely, little town. But people have cell phones now. It used to be that you’d only get mail; now you can collect your email at Colony Hall. So, you aren’t really shut off from the outside world. But, what people find is once they go up there, just the fact that they’re removed physically in the studio from the outside world changes their concept of time, changes the way that they work. And what we hear over and over again is: “You’ve changed the way I think about myself as an artist. I’m now going to apply everything I learned at MacDowell about myself, where I work, and what I’m capable of doing. I try to apply it at home.” And when I read those, that’s when I feel really good because I know it’s nearly impossible to make it last in a completely different setting. Some people have literally changed the way they work. Either they’ve stopped using email during the day or they try to apply some of the principles that have to do with time management in some ways. It’s also the fact that you’ve been given an opportunity and someone has faith in you. It’s MacDowell, but it’s really the panel, those peers who thought you were working on something really wonderful. In some ways, it’s an overwhelming burden to have all your obstacles removed. You go into that studio and you have no obstacles, so now it’s the moment of truth. Now you must do it. The only thing in the studio is a tombstone, a board that people write their names on and the dates they were there. And some of the studios might have Aaron Copland‘s name, or it might have Samuel Barber‘s name. You’ve got these names and all they’ve done is humbly sign these tombstones saying they were there and then all you’ve got is an empty desk or a piano.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: No pressure!

CHERYL YOUNG: No pressure at all!

MOLLY SHERIDAN: Is there anyone who can’t handle it, that feeling of being secluded and cut off?

CHERYL YOUNG: I think the seclusion thing has happened, absolutely. Some people have asked us if they could move closer to the main building. It’s not that far away, but if you’ve never been alone in a building before, you know, if you’ve lived in an apartment all your life, you’re not used to the silence. I think that there are some people who are blocked and it just can’t be cleared. They come the first few days and they’re really psyched and after the first four or five days nothing’s happened and they get very upset and might think this is not working. Often if they talk to just one or two other people who’ve had a similar experience, it breaks loose. Sometimes it doesn’t though and so we’ve had a few people say this is not working. I’ll tell you in the 15 years I’ve been involved with MacDowell, I’ve only heard about 2 of those and there’ve always been good related excuses like, “I’ve got a two-month old baby and I didn’t realize I’d miss him so much.” So, sometimes it’s just not to be and we tell them to come back another time. For some people, the residency experience is not the way to go. I think there are very few people it doesn’t work for though. I know I’m a believer, but I would also say that we’ve had 5800 artists come through and there’s only a handful that it really didn’t work for. Most of the time, because of the way the place is set up, there’s a way to work with it. There’s complete flexibility. So if you get lonely for New York, or home, you can go home for the weekend. The fact that there’s such a variety of people, if a personality clash has happened, well, you know, you can avoid them. There’s enough geographic space to do that. And, even if the evenings, if you choose not to participate in the presentations, there are enough people in residence where it may not even be noticed that you’re not coming. I mean, it’s noticed, but it’s not as if you’re relied on to be somebody else’s entertainment or friend. There’s collegiality and there’s an expectation that you’ll be civil but there’s no real expectation that you must do this or that. And there’s enough geographic space to do that. It works that way. If you’re looking at residency programs, these are all the different things to watch for: What do they really expect? Do I have to produce a concert at the end of this? How much time will I have to produce that piece? What will my workspace be like? What will the distances be between work and where I’m living? Will they be providing meals or will I have to cook? For some people I think one of the issues would be being able to leave if they have a concert that they’ve scheduled and it’s in the middle of the residence. How difficult is it or how expensive is it to get from point A to point B in the middle of the residency? And all the programs are different that way so you really need to look at them and find out what’s expected of you and what it is you need back in return.

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