Interview with Andrew M. Senchak, President, MacDowell Colony
Andrew M. Senchak has been president of MacDowell’s Board of Directors since 2017. He also serves on the Board and Executive Committee of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. He retired as chairman of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. in 2018. Before joining KBW in 1985 he was an assistant professor of economics at Rutgers University and spent two and a half years in Brazil with the Peace Corps. He received a B.A. in liberal arts from Lafayette College and a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University.
Tell us a little about your organization.
MacDowell is an artist retreat on over 300 acres in Peterborough, NH where artists can spend anywhere from two weeks to two months in creative retreat in one of 32 private studios. The artists come with a project in mind, but might change directions as they have complete artistic freedom. They are only encouraged to join their fellow artists-in-residence for family style dinners where writers and poets, theatre artists, architects, composers, interdisciplinary artists, visual artists, and filmmakers exchange ideas and discuss their approaches to work.
How did your organization get started?
The organization had its origins when Marian MacDowell bought a farm in Peterborough where she and Edward had been going for summers. Edward MacDowell was on the faculty at Columbia University, and Marian built her husband a studio so he could compose music away from the bustle of the farm. It turned out he was extraordinarily productive in that studio and it was a revelation. He often claimed he did his best work in that small log cabin, and although he became ill, he told Marian he’d like to extend the gifts of space and time at their farm to other artists. It became known as The Peterborough Idea and Marian raised funds from the likes of Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, and J. Pierpont Morgan to start things off. She spent the rest of her life developing the colony, which has welcomed many distinguished artists to come make work in its wooded sanctuary. Some of the notables are Thornton Wilder, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Michael Chabon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Louise Erdrich, Cathy Park Hong, Dee Rees, Vijay Seshadri, Ann Patchett, Colson Whitehead, and Julia Wolfe. MacDowell was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1997 for “nurturing and inspiring many of this century’s finest artists.”
What has been the most fulfilling part of your work so far?
Well, I think of two major events that I have found most fulfilling. I first got involved with the colony when I joined the design committee for the new library, and really enjoyed working with the committee and with the architects, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams. It was intensely fulfilling on many levels. First, we ended up with a spectacular edifice loved by Fellows, then we dedicated the library to James Baldwin, a genius who had been a Fellow on three occasions and who wrote Giovanni’s Room there. It’s a testament to MacDowell’s longstanding policy of being completely open to artists from across the country regardless of their race, social standing, or professional success. It’s only ever been and always will be about talent.
Naming the library and standing next to poet Kevin Young as he talked about what Baldwin meant to him was a wonderful experience on a cold clear day in November. On top of that, while we received no funding to name the library beforehand, once we went ahead with what we all agreed was the right thing to do, we received a $2 million sustaining grant from the Drue Heinz Foundation, so our naming the library for Baldwin has given the entire MacDowell organization enormous satisfaction. Just walking through that library, seeing it used and appreciated by Fellows and imagining the artists who have been inside its walls is powerful.
The other fulfilling thing was really two events that came in quick succession: The first was working with the board to find a successor for our executive director who had been there for 30 years, and we proved that with some work and dedication great things can happen. Philip Himberg came to us and he has proven in short order a worthy successor to Cheryl Young. The next challenge was to find a successor for our chairman, Michael Chabon, an extremely well known and charismatic chairman. I never thought we’d be able to replace Michael, but just recently we found Nell Painter, a well-respected historian and educator, and author of numerous works, including The History of White People. But Nell is more than an historian, she’s also an artist, and she went back to school after retirement and wrote a best-seller about the experience called Old in Art School. She is also a MacDowell Fellow and a more than worthy successor to Michael. In some sense, Nell found us. Maybe that’s the answer – you do a lot of really hard thinking and preparation, and the right people come to you serendipitously after the groundwork has been laid, but working with the board to land these two fabulous leaders and facilitating a smooth transition has been very rewarding.
Here at Boston Private, we pride ourselves on understanding what our clients’ wealth is really for. Can you tell us how you enable our clients’ WHYs?
Our wealth is our endowment and our stewardship of that endowment is critical to sustaining the colony. We use that to provide the artists with their freedom to create and I think that’s the “why of MacDowell,” the reason for our existence. MacDowell is an Idea, and the Idea is The Freedom to Create.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Aside from placing a new executive director and chairman of the board, the biggest challenge is convincing people that art is more fundamental to our society today than it ever was. It’s a society that increasingly sees no value in arts education and it’s MacDowell’s daily challenge to make the case as to why it is important to support artists.
Over half of the artists who come to MacDowell have annual incomes below the poverty line. They often forego good healthcare, owning a home, raising children – let alone contributing to a retirement fund. It’s all the more extraordinary when you realize these artists have passed through our competitive process and are among the best in their disciplines.
How do you explain why art is important? I challenge people to think about their lives without art -- no novels, movies, poems, architecture, visual art, no music – whatever inspires you. Imagine it didn't exist! This is what fuels us – we cannot have a world without art. That’s why I am committed to MacDowell.
What are your dreams for this organization over the next three to five years?
My first dream is that we will be able to raise an additional million dollars to more than $3 million a year and the second is that Philip and Nell will undertake to basically equip MacDowell to meet the challenges I just laid out. It’ll take funding and an engaged board to ensure the colony continues to provide the same experience for every artist in our changing world.
My favorite part of the day is...
On Medal Day when I visit the kitchen because I get to talk to the chef who is a master at providing extraordinary meals throughout the year and to see what’s cooking with the staff. In New York, I so enjoy walking through the doors of our new office and talking to everyone there. Whether in New York or in New Hampshire, being able to interact with the people who keep things running, who are so dedicated, hardworking, and passionate about their mission, about The MacDowell Colony’s mission, is the best part of any day.
Image credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey