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Michael Chabon to head board of artist colony

By Hillel Italie
AP National Writer / December 6, 2010

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NEW YORK—Michael Chabon, novelist, screenwriter and father of four, has a new responsibility.

He has been elected chairman of the board of the directors of the MacDowell Colony, the century-old artist residency program based in Peterborough, N.H. Chabon, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," replaces Robert MacNeil, author and television newsman who is retiring Monday after serving 17 years. MacNeil turns 80 in January.

"Like anything you do for a very long time, it's time to move on," MacNeil told The Associated Press on Monday during a joint interview with Chabon.

Chabon, 47, has been a resident nine times at MacDowell, where he wrote part of "Kavalier & Clay," and said that he was eager to contribute to an institution that had done so much for him. He said he had been offered the position two years ago, but turned it down because his children were still too small. Now, with the youngest 7, he is ready to make the occasional trip East from his home in Berkeley, Calif., where he lives with fellow writer Ayelet Waldman.

"I feel such a sense of obligation and debt to the place," he said. "I'm far more productive there than anywhere else. I get more done there in two weeks than I would in three or four months at home. You've built up all this energy. It's like getting a hose unkinked. I don't think I ever had a stay at MacDowell that didn't include one breakthrough."

MacDowell was founded in 1907 as the fulfillment of a dying wish of composer Edward MacDowell, who had loved spending summers in Peterborough and wanted other creative people to have the same experience. The colony has been a refuge for such artists as Thornton Wilder, who wrote "Our Town" there, and Jonathan Franzen, who worked on his novel "The Corrections." George Gershwin composed part of "Porgy and Bess" at the same studio where Chabon has often worked.

The colony is laid out on 450 acres and accepts 250 artists a year, for stays up to two months. Despite the current recession, the colony has managed to keep to its annual budget of $3.5 million, in part by drawing more from its endowment.

The outside world is remote from MacDowell, but not entirely shut out. It's possible to get a signal on your cell phone, if you stand in the right place, but wi-fi has not been installed.

MacNeil wanted Chabon to succeed him because he thinks the author is an ideal model for the next generation -- open to different genres and art forms, enlightened about gender and racial diversity. And Chabon may help bring more artists from the West Coast.

"We've done a good job on the areas of diversity that are usually more difficult -- race and gender," MacNeil said. "But many of our artists still come from the East. We are always telling ourselves we want to represent all parts of the country."

Chabon said he has not yet come up with any plans for new projects at MacDowell. He also has to consider whether he can still attend as a resident.

"I would hate to be cutting off the possibility," he said. "It's not out of the question, but I would have to apply like anyone else."