MacDowell celebrates Charles Gaines on Medal Day

  • Conceptual artist Charles Gaines receives the 60th Edward MacDowell Medal from Michael Chabon at Medal Day in Peterborough Sunday. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Thelma Golden, Phillip Himberg, Andrew Senchak, and David Macy, above, applaud as Charles Gaines receives his Edward MacDowell Medal from Michael Chabon. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Conceptual artist Charles Gaines receives the 60th Edward MacDowell Medal, presented by Michael Chabon, at Medal Day in Peterborough Sunday Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Artist Rosalyne Shieh explains her work to visitors as part of the studio open house hours during Medal Day in Peterborough on Sunday. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/12/2019 5:43:05 PM

Charles Gaines received the 60th Edward MacDowell Medal from the MacDowell Colony on Sunday’s Medal Day. The Los Angeles visual artist was lauded by his peers for his groundbreaking career in conceptual art.

Thelma Golden, the Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, spoke to the packed tent about her appreciation of Gaines’ work as a colleague and friend. She described Gaines’ work in the 1970s as “bending conceptualism to striking new purposes,” serving as a bridge between the first generation of conceptual artists and the next.

Golden said Gaines’ work had a remarkable influence on the generation of artists she curated in the early 1990s who, she said, used his name as the answer to every question about their art. She understood the artists “got their sense of possibility” through his example, of “what pure and clear artistic vision and power could be.” She emphasized Gaines’ legacy as not just the art, but also the ideas and possibilities he’s created. She identified him as an artist, thinker, writer, composer, musician – and tennis player – and well-deserving in his induction to the “pantheon” of former medal recipients.

“This represents a serious judgment that comes from the deepest-held values of my peers,” Gaines said while expressing thanks for the award.

He joked he was finally beginning to understand it wasn’t all an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke.

Gaines told the audience that at 16 he’d sneak into clubs to hear the jazz musician Sonny Rollins. When he wasn’t allowed in, he’d linger around the doors to catch what he could from outside. He referred to those times as “my first deep encounter with art,” and said he found it “simply jaw-dropping” to receive the same honor that Rollins did in 2010.

Gaines described his career as beginning at the peak of the conceptual art movement, as well as the peak of the Black Power Movement. He understood that conceptual and political movements could be combined, that abstract concepts have a political dimension to them that’s derived from an artist’s personal experience. Gaines referenced his own youth in the Jim Crow South as an experience that informed his artistic work. He reminded the audience that art is one of the only disciplines that can exercise moral judgment, and encouraged artists to take advantage of that.

The annual Medal Day celebration is a time for the MacDowell Colony to honor an artist for an outstanding cultural contribution and is also the only time that the Colony grounds are open to the public. The event drew an estimated crowd of 1,400, according to Jonathan Gourlay of The MacDowell Colony.

Andrew Senchak, president of the Board of The MacDowell Colony, said he saw Medal Day as “an annual conversation” about what the artistic community values. He introduced the new executive director Phillip Himberg. Senchak expressed his excitement over Himberg’s over-the-top dedication to learning his new role. “He is a theater person. Let the show begin.”

Himberg said the people of New Hampshire “made me feel like I instantly belong.” Himberg started officially in June, taking the place of Cheryl Young, who retired after 30 years with MacDowell. He said he is excited to work for an institution that honored and supported artists that were so influential to him throughout his life. Himberg referred to MacDowell as a “utopia for creative and daring souls,” and announced that on July 22, the Colony’s 15,000th artist residency was completed. 

“We are only here because of you,” he said of the MacDowell fellows.

“MacDowell makes art possible,” said Michael Chabon, chairman of the Board of Directors of The MacDowell Colony.

Chabon, who has been chairman since 2010, said he plans to step down from the board next spring.


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