As soon as Katrina sobered up, the Trasks began to plan for this “place of inspiration,” and 23 year later, when Katrina died, the family fortune became the endowment for the Corporation of Yaddo.

The MacDowell Colony was not so dramatically inspired, but it too was deeply rooted in the romantic notions of the period. The land was originally a farm bought by Marian MacDowell in 1896 as a retreat where her husband, Edward (one of the few successful European-influenced American composers), could work without distraction. Every day during the summer months, Edward would repair to his cabin in the woods and compose without interruption; if he didn’t show up at the main house for lunch, Marian would place a lunch basket on his cabin doorstep.

Edward MacDowell apparently had two things to say about this enviable situation: that he could triple his creative efforts when he worked in such a manner, and that he thought that every American artist should have the same opportunity. Marian evidently took him at his word, for upon his death in 1908 she deeded the farm and land to the MacDowell Memorial Association, and 25 studios were constructed in remote sections of the far flung property. But this was only the beginning; for the next 39 years, Marian MacDowell continued to support the colony by touring the country every winter, giving concerts of her late husband’s work (she was a pianist) and raising money. By the time she died in 1956, at the age of 99, the colony had been thriving for 49 years.


MacDowell and Yaddo weren’t the only experimental colonies to be founded at the turn of the century, however; in general it was an era when such experiments in social and artistic living arrangements were common. Some of these were started by the artists themselves, others by well-meaning institutions; most, unfortunately, had the life span of the average literary magazine. That MacDowell and Yaddo somehow managed to survive and even expand in this climate indicates an astute reading of the artist’s temperament. For one thing, these two colonies seem to understand that while artists certainly enjoy talking about getting away from it all, they seldom want to get too far away. (Let’s face it, it’s a fairly rare occurrence when an artist moves from Manhattan to Topeka to concentrate on his masterpiece.) Instead, most of them want a place where they can work and also socialize, flirt, argue, snub one another and observe others’ work. MacDowell and Yaddo fulfill these functions masterfully: guests are far away from distractions like shopping, bills, agent, kids and — in most cases — spouses, but when the work day is over, they can confidently look forward to an evening of artistic intrigue rivaling anything offered at even the hippest SoHo nightspot.

All this is interesting, even titillating to those with artistic ambitions, but the colonies are able to keep the social interaction lively because, like summer cruises, the residencies end when their terms are over, and the guests return to society. Thus the colonies neatly avoid the inevitable incidents of passion, envy, confrontation and revenge that seem to occur when artists set up an organization whose aspirations are anything more than ad hoc. The artists at Yaddo and MacDowell know they don’t have to live with each other forever, and things are less likely to self-destruct when everyone is trying to make the best of a brief stay.

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