Earlier this month, the MacDowell Colony announced officially removing the word “colony” from their name. The organization will now be known as MacDowell. We spoke with the executive director Philip Himberg about laying the groundwork for this shift at the 113-year-old institution—and the staff petition that set their name change in motion.
“The seeds of change started a few years back with the decision to cease using the word ‘Colonists’ and refer to our artists-in-residence as ‘Fellows’ [instead],” Philip explained. “When our logo was redesigned, ‘MacDowell’ was prominent and ‘Colony’ was relegated to a much smaller font. By the time I arrived at MacDowell [in June 2019], it was clear that usage of ‘colony’ was rare—never in our daily correspondence or fundraising, for example.But in order for change to take place there needed to be a formal process in motion.”
In January 2020, the consultant Lisa Yancey began working with MacDowell’s board of directors and staff, kicking off a yearlong process to embed diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) strategies and competencies across the entire institution. MacDowell leadership pledged to take actionable steps to fully embrace that work and a few months later Philip created MacDowell’s Staff and Board DEIA Task Force.
An “immediate action” we could take
“Formal removal of the word [colony] was in our ether, but I credit my staff with bringing this to urgent attention—in the form of a petition—as one ‘immediate action’ we could take. In less than two weeks, the Board was aware of the imperative and officially voted in a specially called meeting on June 30.”
Each MacDowell board member was telephoned individually by fellow board members prior to the vote, so that one-on-one conversations could happen and there was time for the clear presentation and exchange of ideas. “It was a moving moment to see each board member’s face on the Zoom screen [when we voted]. We had spectacular representation and a unanimous decision.”
In an interview with the Associated Press, MacDowell Board Chair Nell Painter shared the board perspective, expressing that while “colony” can mean a country under the control of an outside power or a community of like-minded people, both definitions carry a sense of exclusion and hierarchy, and the first definition is far more prevalent. She added that MacDowell was formed during a time of legal segregation and, for decades, staff and artists engaged by the institution were virtually all-white. She writes, “In the language we speak today, ‘colony’ is a word tied to occupation and oppression.”
MacDowell cites their name change as one step among many that will have a significant impact on their residency program, as well as on staffing and governance. “We have much work to do, listening to do, and action to take,” says Philip. “Some of those actions can happen immediately and some change will come over different arcs of time.”
When asked what other residency programs can learn from MacDowell’s name change, Philip added:
“The work of DEIA must be a priority. It is not ‘other’ or ‘added’; it’s baked into the ethos of the organization, and needs to be a primary exploration in every initiative or program, old or new. It’s sometimes very challenging work, and it is very personal. Finding how to communicate among staff and board is an important first step. I do think that engaging an expert in the field, at least in our case, is what makes this possible”
Read more in MacDowell’s press release and their coverage in the New York Times.