Home Away From Studio

While a rash of contemporary residencies have recently popped up around the globe, the history—and significance—of artists communally seeking creative escape stretches far back into time.
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In the summer of 1955, an unlikely meeting of the minds occurred in the forests of southern New Hampshire. It happened at MacDowell Colony, the art residency founded in the early years of the 20th century as a place for creative minds to flourish amid the meadows, white clapboard houses, and stone cottages. 

The great Marcel Duchamp, the pathbreaking French-American Dada artist, had been given a special invitation to spend time at MacDowell. Also on hand that summer was painter Milton Avery, an American contemporary of Duchamp’s who was known for his strongly simplified, abstracted scenes. Decades later, Avery’s wife, Sally, recalled in an interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art that her husband taught Duchamp a valuable skill set during the summer. Was it a painting technique? A way to see the world through art? Advice about dealing with galleries or museums? None of the above. “Milton used to play pool every night,” explained Sally. “He was very good. Duchamp had never played, so Milton was giving him lessons.” She added that Duchamp told her husband, “‘Milton, I am going to have cards printed: Marcel Duchamp, pupil of Milton Avery. He thought that was the greatest joke.”

Artists’ residencies, and the change of scenery they provide, encourage artists to form connections like these that are as unpredictable as art itself. Sometimes it’s all good fun and at other times these programs—away from the art world’s pressures—are the site of major creative breakthroughs or hard-won progress on a long-gestating piece. Founded in 1907, MacDowell, which recently dropped the “colony” from its name, is one of the oldest of such programs, and is also the place where the painter Faith Ringgold worked on her seminal series “Baby Face and Willi” in 1982. More than 2,000 visual artists have done the residency in its century-plus existence, and many more creators overall, since the program includes writers and performing artists, too.

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There are hundreds of programs similar to MacDowell around the world that are all based on the idea that time away from the demands of normal life is a revitalizing experience. During these residencies, artists bond, work, learn, teach, argue, or simply stare into space, should that inspire the creative process. “Artists need a test kitchen for their work,” explains Alexander S. C. Rower, the grandson of sculptor Alexander Calder and the chairman of the Calder Foundation, which helps sponsor the Atelier Calder residency in the village of Saché, in France’s Loire region. Of course, many also often jump at the chance to be in a like-minded community of creators, instead of stuck in the studio staring at the same four walls—that is, if he or she is even lucky enough to have a dedicated art-making space in the first place. 

The very concept of an artist residency gained steam in the early 20th century, at a time when the world got dramatically busier, denser, noisier, and more urban. Suddenly, there was something—actually, a lot of things—to get away from. It’s easy to forget the changes of those years: The U.S. population nearly doubled from 1900 to 1930, and those people saw the development of the automobile, the airplane, and the radio, while also living through the trial of World War I. 

As the notion of art residencies evolved, so too did their ability to foster emotional and creative development. The tension between socializing and solitude is a key element of participating; too much of either, and they don’t work as well. Sarah Workneh, the co-director of Skowhegan, the art school and residency in central Maine, says that artists in the program tell her how encouraging it feels to be “situated with a group of people who are really dedicated—and that’s different from isolation. It gives reassurance and confidence.” Normally Skowhegan, established in 1946, has 65 students over nine weeks, though last summer it was closed due to the coronavirus (true of many such programs this year).

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Sometimes new settings seem to force rapid creativity. In 1967, composer John Cage and dance pioneer Merce Cunningham spent much of their time at Skowhegan mushroom hunting; Cage had been invited to meet with students as a visiting artist, and his creative and romantic partner Cunningham tagged along. But when Cage saw posters around town announcing that he was giving a performance—something he wasn’t aware of at the time, he had to think fast. And so he composed his now-famous work “Variations VII” in a single evening. “You have to improvise,” says Workneh. “That’s part of what it means to create in a reduced setting. You don’t have your normal tool kit.”

Of course, Cage and Cunningham were visiting dignitaries at that point, and the primary thrust of residencies is more for artists who are in earlier stages of their careers. “There’s a trajectory,” says Workneh. “Yale-Norfolk is important for young artists,” she continues, referring to the summer undergraduate residency. “Brice Marden and Vija Celmins met there when they were in college. Then the next step is Skowhegan when you’re building your practice and you’re not a kid anymore. Yaddo and MacDowell are for when you’ve solidified your voice.”

The average age of Skowhegan participants is 28, says the artist Kiki Smith, a board member of the institution, whose father, the late Tony Smith, also lectured there. “They are people out of grad school, out on their own, and they need other colleagues,” she says. “It’s a transformative time—you got a lot of attention in school, and now you need more.” Personal breakthroughs can also occur during a few summer months, when romance blooms among creative types who are put together in a hothouse atmosphere. “People leave their husbands and wives,” says Smith. “People get husbands and wives, too.” Smith notes that artists are all different, of course, and so opinions on the worth of a residency vary widely. “For some people they are invaluable, but not for everyone,” Smith says. “It depends on what access you have to time, peace, and materials in your normal life.” (When living legend David Hockney was asked about this topic, he wrote back: “I am not sure I’ve ever been invited on one, but I don’t think I’d go.”)

It’s not just for giving artists space to work; it’s a larger project that’s about liberation...It’s an experimental place. –Julie Mehretu

The New York painter Julie Mehretu has done more than half a dozen residencies, including at the American Academy in both Berlin and Rome. “Early residencies were very formative for me,” she says. “One of the most valuable things I received is the sense of community of people you’re involved with, whether it’s around meals or another setting.” Mehretu, whose mid-career retrospective comes to the Whitney Museum of American Art in the spring, recalls that she bonded with artist Sanford Biggers while at the Headlands Center for the Arts, a residency in Marin County, California. 

In fact, her time spent at residencies was so important to Mehretu that she and fellow artist friends Lawrence Chua and Paul Pfeiffer founded their own: Denniston Hill, located on 200 bucolic acres in New York’s southern Catskills. She describes it as “a collective, with the residency as a collective work.” And because its founders are, as Mehretu says, “queer people of color,” it has a pointed, specific approach. “It’s not just for giving artists space to work; it’s a larger project that’s about liberation. What does postcolonialism look like? It’s an experimental place.” 

As residencies have proliferated, many different types have bloomed. Geographically, you can find them everywhere from the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, where in 2014 the artist Bosco Sodi founded Casa Wabi, to the heart of urban London, where a three-month program is offered by the non-profit Gasworks. As the program in the British capital demonstrates, bucolic settings are not required. The Triangle Arts residency may have started in the countryside when renowned sculptor Anthony Caro co-founded it as a summer program at a former dairy farm in Upstate New York in 1982, but it subsequently moved to the city, and it now has four studios hosting three to six artists for a few months in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. “The urban setting is a big draw, especially for international artists,” says Nova Benway, Triangle’s executive director. 

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Triangle Arts

The art critic and historian Karen Wilkin, who was in attendance for Triangle’s first summer with Caro, notes that the sculptor modeled the residency on one in the Saskatchewan province of Canada. Named after a remote body of water, Emma Lake, the program started sometime in the 1920s, and Caro visited in the 1970s. (When the Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman was invited to participate, Wilkin says he reportedly replied, “Where is Saskatchewan, and who is Emma Lake?”) Wilkin says that these sorts of programs continue to thrive because “artists form unbreakable bonds there.” The best way to think of them, she says, given the weeks- or months-long duration of many, is as a “workshop in slow motion.” She adds that the obvious shouldn’t be overlooked: Residencies thrive because “people have a lot of fun during them.”

For artists in search of a setting that balances nature, the Chinati Foundation, in the wide-open spaces of Marfa, Texas, may be the perfect spot. Artist Donald Judd fell in love with the stark high-desert area in the 1970s, and it became a prime inspiration. Starting in the 1980s, he began inviting artists informally to spend time there, and this practice eventually became an official residency for six artists a year, each on hand for two to three months. Judd was collecting works all the while, and, as a result, Chinati, established in 1986, became a serious museum of Conceptual art, making it a rich environment for visiting artists now. 

“Imagine being locked in the Met Museum overnight,” says Chinati senior advisor Rob Weiner. “You’re in the middle of this great art collection, located in this natural landscape.” The Chinati residency was key for several artists who, while big names now, weren’t so big when they participated, like German painter Katharina Grosse. 

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Chinati Foundation

These days, there’s a program for every type of artistic interest and specialty. A.I.R. Vallauris, a residency located in the charming town of Vallauris in the south of France, focuses on the ceramic arts, the medium that the area has long specialized in. The field has seen a huge increase of activity among contemporary artists recently. “A painter can paint anywhere,” says Dale Dorosh, the director and founder who established it 19 years ago after a career as a ceramist himself. “Here we’re focused on ceramics, and that’s our added value. Because ceramists need equipment and it’s harder to travel.” Six people at a time generally spend a month at Vallauris, and there are six sessions a year, with people leaving “surprised at how much they’ve accomplished,” says Dorosh. The program gets a boost in atmosphere from the location, given that Picasso lived in the area for 10 years. “That has left a mark,” says Dorosh. “But even before then, it was quite a rich area artistically.” 

Artists have to pay for the privilege of a Vallauris residency, but other programs are sponsored by patrons, as in the case of Villa Lena, a picturesque spot located in the olive grove– studded hills of Tuscany. Founder Lena Evstafieva, who formerly worked at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and as a director for Pace Gallery, established it in 2014 partly because she couldn’t bear not sharing the exquisite setting of her home there, which she enjoys with her husband, musician Jerome Hadley. “We’re lucky that we have the space to do it,” says Evstafieva. “It seemed like a no-brainer.” The 500-hectare estate’s main villa has 20 bedrooms, eight of which are used by artists for a month or two; their separate studios are located in outbuildings down the road. Villa Lena receives around 300 applications a year, from which 50 or so artists get selected, with Evstafieva getting help in evaluating them from an advisory panel. One point of difference that makes Villa Lena stand out is that it’s a “family-friendly residence,” says the founder, who focuses on women artists in her personal collecting, buying the work of Kathleen Ryan and the late, great ceramist Betty Woodman, among others. One special slot per session is set aside for a family with children. “It’s impossible in our modern age to disappear from your children,” says Evstafieva. “I have two kids myself. I get it.” 

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A.I.R. Vallauris

The people who arrange, sponsor, and advise on residencies closely observe what gets done under their auspices—or doesn’t get done. “A few artists weren’t productive, and our partners were disappointed,” says Rower of the Atelier Calder residency, which is run by, and partially funded by, the French government and takes place in a modern home and light-filled former workshop that Calder designed and built in the 1970s. “Obviously, we have to be careful and make sure they don’t use it as a country house,” Rower adds. But he has also learned that artistic gestation periods are long: “Sometimes you can look a year or two down the road and only then you see how the Calder program filtered into their work.” He has seen all different kinds of reactions to the time and space provided. The Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, for instance, influenced by Calder’s mobiles, perfected the weights and volumes of his bulbous, netted sculptural forms. Martin Puryear, one of the greatest living sculptors, “didn’t complete a single work of art, but he shipped it all home and finished all of them over several years,” says Rower. Jeppe Hein had 35 assistants on hand to create a circus-like performance, which created a wild and free-wheeling atmosphere. 

Certainly, France’s culinary pleasures prove a draw there, too. Tomás Saraceno took a page from the locals and roasted rabbits over a fire. “There are millions of cheeses and very good wines,” says Rower. “Everyone indulges in that. A very famous artist overindulged—I can’t say who—and she blamed me for her more voluptuous form after it was over.”

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Atelier Calder

The rural life is not for everyone, of course. “A lot of artists aren’t prepared to go to the countryside for six months,” says Rower. That was the case for at least one participant in the Chinati Foundation residency, too, who saw more of Texas than was expected. “One artist was so anxious and disturbed by all the crawling things like spiders and snakes, they had to leave immediately,” says Weiner. But for those who stick it out, big rewards can follow. The Brooklyn-based artist Kambui Olujimi, who works in various media, is the sort of ideal artist to benefit from a few months away: He’s mid- career and on the rise, but not famous yet. He has done MacDowell, Skowhegan, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation residency, on the island of Captiva, in Florida, as well as one of the newest entries in the field, Black Rock, founded in 2019 by American artist Kehinde Wiley in Dakar, Senegal. “They can differ vastly,” says Olujimi, and certainly the settings of sleepy Captiva and vibrant Dakar are proof of that. In the former, he says, it was about hunkering down with the extensive facilities located in the same beachfront compound where Rauschenberg once worked. Olujimi, who says he worked 16-hour days there, called it a “wonderland.” In the African capital, it was a more social experience emphasizing getting out into the community. “It’s a cosmopolitan, wonderful city,” he says. 

No matter the trappings, the continent, or the duration, residencies all address the same needs. “As a New Yorker, space is a challenge,” says Olujimi. “It’s incredible to have three months when you’re not paying rent. You’re just working when you wake up, and when you fall asleep. That’s really tough to get outside of college. It’s a unique space.” 

“For an artist’s career,” Olujimi adds, “that’s just crucial.”

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