MacDowell Colony Drops the Word ‘Colony,’ Citing ‘Oppressive Overtones’

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The century-old artists’ retreat known as the MacDowell Colony is removing the word “colony” from its official name in response to a petition from staff members that pushed for the change, the organization said on Tuesday.

Founded in 1907, MacDowell offers a haven in Peterborough, N.H., for artists to work without distraction in private studios during the day, then invites them to gather together for dinner. Some of the artists and writers that the program has hosted include James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Thornton Wilder, Audre Lorde and Meredith Monk.

The program’s board of directors voted unanimously on Tuesday to “remove terminology with oppressive overtones,” according to a news release. The petition arose from staff members hearing from the organization’s fellows and some artists outside the organization that the term “colony” was an objectionable and outmoded term, said Jonathan Gourlay, a spokesman for the organization.

The change comes as predominantly white arts institutions across the country are grappling with their own histories of racism and inequity amid the national protests following the police killing of George Floyd. MacDowell recently released a statement saying that it was committing to fighting “internal and external racism.”

“This name change is at once a significant step and a natural evolution consistent with how the organization is widely known,” Nell Irvin Painter, the chairwoman of MacDowell’s board, said in the news release.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Dr. Painter said that the word “colony” could refer to a location under the control of an outside power, or, as it is applied to the artists’ retreat, a community of like-minded people. Both definitions convey a sense of hierarchy and exclusion, she told The A.P.

The term “colony” had already been mostly phased out of usage among staff members, said Philip Himberg, the organization’s executive director. When Mr. Himberg stepped into the leadership role last year, he said that his predecessor, Cheryl Young, told him that the word was not used in official correspondence or in fund-raising.

The program was founded by a married artist couple, the composer Edward MacDowell and the pianist Marian MacDowell. In 1896, they bought a farm in Peterborough, where Mr. MacDowell said he was able to compose better music. Before his death in 1908, the couple welcomed their first artistic fellows, and the program grew to serve as many as 32 artists at once.

Part of the program involves the fellows gathering for dinners at Colony Hall, which the organization calls the “social center” of the residency program. Mr. Gourlay said that the name of the hall will likely change, and that that decision was still being discussed.

In a typical year, more than 300 artists are awarded fellowships in architecture, film and video arts, interdisciplinary arts, literature, music composition, theater and visual arts. The residency program closed in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated in the United States and has not had any artists on site since then.



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