Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Catherine Prendergast, "Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief"
Response by Kaia Simon

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

[On November 10, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the second lecture in the 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief: The American Arts Colony in the Public Account." The speaker was Catherine Prendergast, Professor of English. Professor Kathryn Oberdeck (History) responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student Kaia Simon (English).]

Writer, Painter, Banker, Thief: The American Arts Colony in the Public Account
Written by Kaia Simon

The origin story of the Yaddo artist colony is steeped in romanticism, the natural, and the supernatural. It lauds the benevolence of the rich in creating and preserving a space for the development of art and artists. The origin story runs like this: during a walk in the Yaddo woods surrounding her home, Katrina Trask (a wealthy married woman and prolific author of poetry and plays) sees a divine vision that instructs her to leave Yaddo to artists. She grabs her husband’s arm and pointing to the trees, claims to see a vision of men and women among them, “creating, creating, creating!” Spencer Trask, her husband, moved by his wife’s vision, agrees to bequeath the estate for an artists’ retreat. Thus, Yaddo is founded as an idyllic site for the development of artists and has since yielded a rich harvest of 68 National Book Award winners, 67 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 108 Rome Award winners.

Prendergast demystifies this origin story and offers a counternarrative of its founding and legacy. She argues that a study of the material conditions surrounding the acquisition of the Yaddo estate and its eventual incorporation is crucial to understanding that the economic and the cultural are not separate realms in American life but intricately connected. Prendergast’s account brings to light the material conditions that made and continues to make Yaddo possible. She contends that rather than being a story of divine intervention and the affirmation of artistic work, Yaddo was built on the economic panic of “second-tier robber barons”--the Old Money Yankees whose fortunes could not compete with the New Money of J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and the Guggenheims, but who wanted to use philanthropy to protect their wealth during the economic booms and busts of the end of the Gilded Age. These second-tier robber barons might not have been able to amass art collections or endow libraries across the nation, but they were able to buy up rural properties on the cheap—and found many of these artist colonies.

The Yaddo Mansion, ca. 1905
Prendergast arrives at this claim after careful and detailed study of the documents containing the economic transactions and court cases related to the Yaddo estate, and by examining the Saratoga locals’ response to the Trasks and the Yaddo estate. By assembling an archive of documents that detail the material conditions of acquisition, development, staffing, and maintenance of this estate, Prendergast is able to argue that it is the very fraught history of the conflict between the economic and political interests of the Trasks and the people of Saratoga that enabled Yaddo to exist and, eventually, to thrive. Her research sheds light on the complex interconnections between business and charity, New York and Saratoga, and Spencer Trask, Katrina Trask, and George Foster Peabody. These linkages, much more than divine vision and noblesse oblige, offer a clearer material history of the founding of Yaddo.

Prendergast’s archival research captures the complexity of personal and business relations at this time, and offers rich details to help us understand the personal and economic motives that inform the development of Yaddo. Some of the most compelling details center around the Trasks’ marriage: that they used the estate and the people who staffed it to “play medieval” (even addressing each other Lorde and Ladye in their correspondence); that Spencer encouraged his wife’s affair with George Foster Peabody as Spencer himself kept residence in his office on Bowling Green; and that Spencer’s death may not have been the train “accident” it was reported as in newspapers. These details plot the unrest between Yaddo and the Saratoga locals, explain Katrina’s eventual marriage to Peabody, and illuminate Peabody’s role as president and chairman of both the Yaddo Board and the Broadway Realty Company.

Yaddo’s documented economic history started in August 1873. The mansion and land were auctioned to buyers who Prendergast likened to those who bought vacation property in Florida in 2005. Yaddo’s property immediately lost 70% of its value in the subsequent September 1873 market crash, paving the way for Spencer to buy the mansion and surrounding property on foreclosure in 1881, and then eventually buy up the surrounding lots at deflated prices from owners who could no longer afford them. Prendergast documents one conflict between Spencer and a landowner named Hamilton, who not only refused to sell his lot but also took Trask to court for changing the course of a stream and flooding that very land. This conflict speaks to the way the Saratoga locals resisted the entitlement the Trasks exercised.The Trasks did not endear themselves to the residents of Saratoga in any way: not only did they take advantage of their misfortune in acquiring the land, they insulted their employees and orchestrated moralistic anti-gambling campaigns targeting their activities and practices. The people of Saratoga resisted them in multiple ways: in the papers, in court, and even through civil disobedience (which, Prendergast said, is a nice word for vandalism).

The Yaddo pergola
Amid this complex interplay of forces, Prendergast argues, Yaddo was born as an artist colony. The central conflict between Yaddo and the people of Saratoga centered on Yaddo’s claim for tax-exempt status as a charitable organization, long before the first artists were installed there. After being denied tax-exempt status by the city of Saratoga on the claim that Yaddo was functioning only as a private residence with no evidence of artists in its quarters, a series of court decisions forced Peabody to actually work to incorporate and develop Yaddo. Because of the public's and the court’s scrutiny, Peabody appointed a board of directors for the charitable organization, held meetings, and developed the land, all to save face for what had been initially a tax shelter for the Broadway Realty Company. After eventually winning the court cases and achieving tax-exempt status, Yaddo accepted its first artists in residence during 1926. The public of Saratoga did not collect any tax money from the estate, essentially subsidizing it.

Prendergast does not intend this story to be a critique of artists’ colonies or of support for the arts in the United States—quite the opposite, in fact. She uses this story to argue that without an understanding of the material history of public support and funding for the arts, the arts can too easily become pawns in others’ economic battles, while the actual public support for the arts goes unaccounted for. Prendergast shows that the public of Saratoga made and continue to make Yaddo possible: by not collecting taxes from it and by working there while surrendering the use of the land for other public uses or good. Ironically, despite its continued investment in Yaddo—whether willing or not—the public receives no credit in the enshrined origin story of Yaddo. The benefactors and donors do. Prendergast wonders what the actual cost of such stories of altruistic purity are, and how they continue to obscure the public support that sustains the arts.


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John Branch said...

Aha! Fascinating. Thanks to Kaia Simon for this "recap" of Catherine Prendergast's lecture on Yaddo.