Town Demands Taxes from Long-Exempt Artists' Colony

For nearly 100 years, the MacDowell Colony has provided a haven for artists in the woods of Peterborough, N.H. The town has long recognized the colony as a tax-exempt charitable organization. But now, pressed for funds, town administrators are demanding that even artists pay their fair share.

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For nearly a century, the MacDowell Colony has provided a haven for artists in the woods of Peterborough, New Hampshire. That town has long recognized the colony as a charitable organization, meaning it's tax exempt, but now town administrators are demanding that even artists pay their fair share. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports.

ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:

This is a debate about support of the arts in America, and the question is to tax or not to tax.

(Soundbite of door being unlocked)

BROOKS: David Macy unlocks the door and enters the Savage Library(ph) a gray, stone building surrounded by trees that display a full palette of autumn colors. Macy is the resident director of the MacDowell Colony, and this building houses the works of authors, composers and other artists who have been in residence here or who have received the prestigious MacDowell Medal, a who's who of American artists.

Mr. DAVID MACY (Resident Director, MacDowell Colony): Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Martha Graham, Norman Mailer.

BROOKS: Founded in 1907 by composer Edward MacDowell, the MacDowell Colony awards monthlong residencies to artists who get a private studio in the woods and time to work.

Mr. MARK WINGES (Composer): This is the beginning of the piece that I'm working on now.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BROOKS: Mark Winges is a composer from San Francisco and a MacDowell resident. Back home, Winges works as a computer programmer to pay his bills, and says he's grateful for this opportunity to create his art.

Mr. WINGES: The uninterrupted time with no phone calls, no excuses to see your friends for lunch. The time expands so that I can really figure out whether the next chord is correct or not. And I think it makes the art better for me.

BROOKS: For years, MacDowell has qualified as a charitable organization, exempt from property taxes, but that could change. Peterborough, struggling with tight budgets and growing public outrage over ever-higher property taxes, says it's now time for MacDowell to pay its share of taxes. Joe Byk is a Peterborough selectman.

Mr. JOE BYK (Selectman, Peterborough): The bottom line is we all value what they do. They certainly make a huge contribution to our culture here. But that doesn't get them to what I call the promised land which is charitable status under our state law.

BROOKS: According to that law, churches, schools, colleges and hospitals are tax-exempt charities. So is any organization that advances, quote, "the spiritual, physical or intellectual well-being of the general public," unquote. Byk says MacDowell's support of the arts is not charity because it doesn't benefit the general public like a soup kitchen, for example, which is open to everybody.

Mr. BYK: In this case, not everybody can go to the MacDowell Colony. It's a fairly finite amount of people who, one, apply and, two, even more finite who actually are admitted.

Mr. JAMIE TROWBRIDGE (Yankee Publishing): They've touched a nerve by challenging essentially the value of the arts.

BROOKS: That's Jamie Trowbridge, president of Yankee Publishing, which publishes The Old Farmer's Almanac. He's also a member of the MacDowell board and says the colony's mission is charitable because support of the arts absolutely benefits the general public.

Mr. TROWBRIDGE: We think the arts are a national value, something that the people of America should feel strongly about supporting. That part of our culture is vital to the way America thrives.

BROOKS: In part this dispute is the result of a gulf that separates MacDowell and its lofty mission from a small New England village and the people who run it. Pam Brenner, the Peterborough town administrator, complains that most town residents have little to do with the colony and derive little benefit from it.

Ms. PAM BRENNER (Peterborough Town Administrator): The artist gets the benefit. The artist goes up there and writes a wonderful book. He then sells the book and makes lots of money. So we're really having a struggle as to how the public gets the benefit of the, quote, unquote, "charity" that they represent.

BROOKS: The MacDowell Colony does pay a few thousand dollars a year in taxes on part of its property unrelated to its mission, but if it were fully assessed, the colony would owe $120,000 a year. The town wants MacDowell to pay a fraction of that, about $17,000, to help pay for town services. But MacDowell refuses, so the town has asked a state judge to settle the argument. Jamie Trowbridge, from MacDowell's board of directors, says the town's approach is misguided.

Mr. TROWBRIDGE: What they've said to MacDowell Colony is, `If you will pay a payment in lieu of taxes, we won't challenge the charitable nature of your organization.' That's essentially a shakedown. What part of tax exempt don't they understand?

BROOKS: Peterborough administrators say they've worked out agreements with about 10 other charitable organizations in town to make payments in lieu of taxes. MacDowell's supporters understand the town's need for funds, but they say taxing charities is not the solution. Anthony Brooks, NPR News.

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