In 1896, Edward MacDowell, a composer, and Marian MacDowell, a pianist, bought a farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where they spent summers working in peaceful surroundings. It was in Peterborough that Edward, arguably America’s first great composer, said he produced more and better music. Not long after — falling prematurely and gravely ill — Edward conveyed to his wife that he wished to give other artists the same creative experience under which he had thrived.
Before his death in 1908, Marian set about fulfilling his wish of making a community on their New Hampshire property where artists could work in an ideal place in the stimulating company of peers. Their vision became nationally known as the “Peterborough Idea,” and in 1906, prominent citizens of the time — among them Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, and J. Pierpont Morgan — created a fund in Edward’s honor to make the idea a reality. Although Edward lived to see the first Fellows arrive, it was under Marian’s leadership that support for the Colony increased, most of the 32 studios were built, and the artistic program grew and flourished. Until her death in 1956, she traveled across the country to further public awareness about the Colony’s mission, giving lecture-recitals to raise funds for its preservation.
At its founding, the Colony was an experiment with no precedent. It stands now having provided crucial time and space to more than 6,000 artists, including such notable names as Leonard Bernstein, Thornton Wilder, Aaron Copland, Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Spalding Gray, and more recently Alice Walker, Alice Sebold, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Suzan-Lori Parks, Meredith Monk, and many more.
In 1997, The MacDowell Colony was honored with the National Medal of Arts — the highest award given by the United States to artists or arts patrons — for “nurturing and inspiring many of this century’s finest artists” and offering them “the opportunity to work within a dynamic community of their peers, where creative excellence is the standard.” In 2007, the Colony celebrated its Centennial with a yearlong celebration of the freedom to create.