A think tank for artists in New England woods

Aaron Copland wanted peace and quiet to put the finishing touches on ''Appalachian Spring.'' Thornton Wilder visited to think through ''Our Town.''

Leonard Bernstein needed the hush to conceive his ''Mass.''

Today, like these once-obscure artists before him, composer Murdock McGinnis sits inside one of a series of sequestered bungalows penciling notes on his music score. As leaves fall gently outside, he gives birth to a string quartet amid humble surroundings: bare walls, hooked rug, table, chair.

Welcome to what has been called ''the most creatively prolific 400 acres in America'': the MacDowell Artists' Colony. What a think tank is to scholars, what a research firm is to high-tech engineers, MacDowell is to the fine artists - indeed to the greater culture - of the world.

Much of the music you hear, many of the paintings and sculptures you see, and the books you read - from the famous to the little-known - owe a debt to this slice of silent geography just outside picturesque Peterborough.

Founder Edward MacDowell, a composer, got so much work done here - inspired by mountaintop vistas, fragrant pine forests, and the refuge of the wilderness - that he started inviting others in 1907. Celebrating a 75th anniversary last year, the colony counted 35 Pulitzer prizes among its distinguished alumni. As the first, oldest, and largest of American artists' colonies, it has spawned others across the country - somewhere near 40, and the number is growing.

''MacDowell is the granddaddy of them all,'' says composer Richard Wargo, who has had more than one stint at this and other well-known colonies. ''It's the place to aspire to if you're an artist.''

There were no colonies around when, 10 years after buying an abandoned farm with tumble-down barns, Mr. MacDowell expressed his dream that the different artistic disciplines ''come into such close contact that each and all should gain from this mutual companionship.''

The legacy left by him and his wife, Marian, is summed up in two words: silence and seclusion.

''It's set up so that artists don't have to deal with phone, television, neighbors, job, even preparing meals,'' says director Chris Barnes. ''They eat breakfast, and then work undisturbed in their studios until dinner. Poets, writers, sculptors, painters, tell me they get a year's work done in eight weeks here.''

For a few, days without interruption are worse than sleepless nights, but ''most creators thrive on ideal working conditions,'' says former chairman William Schuman.

''Of all the elements in the creative process, quiet is one of the hardest to come by,'' says painter Hunt Slonem in a testimonial to MacDowell. ''In an age of sensory overload, to be cradled in the protective environment is a great luxury. MacDowell offers an escape ... to watch the lady-slippers bloom and the porcupines mate, to observe and be restored by nature.''

The 20-or-so colonists here at any given time - divided roughly among visual artists, composers, and writers - share breakfast and dinner in the converted barn, Colony Hall, before retiring to self-contained, solitary studios - each beyond earshot of the others. Lunch is delivered quietly by picnic basket promptly at noon, and colonists sleep in various dorms.

''Take a look at this view and tell me I haven't found an artist's paradise, '' says Nancy Chance, a third-time visitor. She left the hustle and bustle of Manhattan to finish a string quartet in one-eighth of the time it would take her at home. ''It's not just the quantity of work you can get done here, though,'' she adds. ''The serenity adds to its quality as well.''

Many MacDowell colonists wait years to be accepted for one of the 200-or-so six- to eight-week stints available each year. Applicants are selected by committees of working artists in each discipline. Committee members rate submitted examples of a candidate's work - manuscripts, slides of paintings or sculpture, tapes of music. Those rated most highly get in. ''The sole criterion of evaluation is ability,'' says MacDowell president Trevor Cushman.

Although there has always been a great danger of politicization - excluding certain kinds of artists, certain age groups, or minorities - Mr. Cushman says MacDowell applies a keen eye to admissions procedures.

''We admit the gamut, from young to old, East to West, and every aesthetic point of view,'' he says, pointing out that a list of each year's recipients is made public in every annual report. ''And that means we get composers writing everything from tall music to something that would give your cat a serious illness.''

Since only 1 in 5 is accepted, and the waiting time can be years, more than a few colonists arrive with equal amounts of inspiration and intimidation.

''The other side of the coin here,'' says painter Maureen Clyne, ''is that finally you have no excuses. You come face to face with yourself and your art. You spend many introspective hours questioning and challenging the quality of your work. If you don't live up to your expectations, it can be very disturbing.''

Add to the removal of those mundane trappings of ''real world'' existence the nurturing attitude of other artists, and you have the MacDowell formula.

At meals in Colony Hall, conversations range anywhere from small talk to serious artistic inquiry. Stories abound of sculptors helping painters or writers helping composers.

''One writer had a character he didn't know how to get from here to there,'' says Louise Talma a composer. ''Each meal we'd all make suggestions, and by the end of his stay, he'd gotten him right where he needed him.''

Available to colonists after dinner are such diversions as a pool table, dart board, ping-pong table, and a television, ''where the occasional aberrant insists on watching soap operas,'' says Mr. Barnes. There is a small library, a pond to swim in, meadows for walking. One major rule: Never visit another studio without an express invitation.

Although it costs MacDowell $65 a day to feed and house each colonist, each one is asked to pay only what he or she can. The average payment of about $15 a day (many pay nothing at all) meets only 10 percent of the colony's costs. A yearly benefit in New York, a $3 million endowment, and various contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals round out the $630,000 yearly budget.

Partly because of its acclaim, MacDowell has come under criticism in recent years for not taking a stronger leadership role - helping financially ailing cousin colonies. When five other major artists' colonies banded together last year to raise funds and dramatize their collective impact on the nation's culture, MacDowell's name was conspicuously absent.

Speaking on its behalf, Barnes replies: ''Our mechanism for fund raising is already in place. What they wanted to do would have duplicated our efforts.'' In addition to MacDowell, the skimpy list of fiscally comfortable colonies now operating includes Yaddo in upstate New York and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

Regardless of criticism, MacDowell is still the model colony - one of the few endeavors that support the individual artist. ''Most foundations and corporations do not support the individual artist, because the mechanism is too complicated,'' says the Tim McClimon of the National Endowment for the Arts. ''And out of self-interest, most corporations want to support something they're sure would give them a good return. You can't sell tickets to watch someone typing in the forest.''

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