Whatever the term “artists’ colony” brings to mind — outlandish traumas, raging temperaments, reveries of inspiration — chances are that Yaddo, and the older MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, not only display these stereotypes in abundance, but probably started them. Since they were founded (MacDowell in 1907, Yaddo in 1926) these two have been the prime examples of the species. And since that time more than 3000 artists, writers, poets, composers, painters, sculptors and photographers have enjoyed their benefits, many of them on the way to more famous endeavors. At Yaddo, for example, any administrator will eagerly recite the list of illustrious alumni: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Milton Avery, Aaron Copland, Truman Capote....The MacDowell list, which boasts 32 Pulitzer Prize winners, begins with Leonard Bernstein, Thornton Wilder, E.A. Robinson, James Baldwin, Jules Feiffer....
An imposing collection of names, to be sure, but many artists and writers are not certain the whole “colony” idea isn’t too contrived, simply a rustic branch of the same tired New York City art world. In a recent New York Times Book Review, John Knowles wrote, rather haughtily, “Every art or writers’ colony I ever visited — briefly — was shot through with people hanging in bars or sweltering on beaches talking about their work. The work itself never seemed to get done, appear, see print.” A photographer who has always avoided colonies scoffed, “They are just places where bored artists — even the dowdiest old poets — go for some romantic intrigue...you know, affairs.”
Yet it seems that for every critic there are two or three who rise to the defense of these colonies, claimng the ability to double or triple artistic output within the confines of MacDowell and Yaddo. “Actually, despite all that you hear, the basic idea is quite simple,” says Nancy Englander, the elegant director of the MacDowell Colony. “We aim to provide a place where the creative man or woman can find the freedom to concentrate for long, undisturbed periods of time upon his or her work. We want to provide a place where the artist can be maximally creative.”
An afternoon walk around Yaddo or MacDowell inevitably supports Englander’s contention. At MacDowell, one sees a staff member on a “lunch run,” placing the food baskets on studio doorsteps with a studied quiet, so as not to disturb the genius inside; at Yaddo, the huge Victorian mansion — all cupolas and porches, pudding stone and stained glass — is ominously silent, except for the quiet clatter of typewriters from inside the open windows. The atmosphere is almost religious; if it weren’t for the bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label and the cigarette cartons that line the artists’ cupboards, one might mistake these places for monasteries. Whatever happens at night — and apparently plenty does — the hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. are sacred. Nothing is allowed to disturb the working artist: no phone calls, no visitors, no cooking, no dishes, laundry or errands — it’s all taken care of by the staff, and the artist finds himself, for once, inescapably alone with his labors.