Through the decades artist communities have provided support to artists as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Ruth Reichl, Robert Rauschenberg, David Sedaris, Meredith Monk, Jonathan Franzen, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Langston Hughes, Merce Cunningham, Flannery O’Connor, Milton Avery, Bob Dylan, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Aaron Copeland, Truman Capote, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Patricia Highsmith, and Bill T. Jones.
If you’re an artist struggling to find free time for your creative work, then a stay at an artist retreat may be just the solution for you.
What is An Artist Retreat?
The central idea behind most residencies is to provide artists with time and space to create–to free you from the demands and distractions of daily living. Some programs provide studio space and meals at no cost, while other communities require you to make a small financial contribution toward your stay or to give back to the program in some other way. Some residencies also offer grants to help cover the cost of travel, supplies, lost income, etc. Programs that provide the most support at no cost to the artist are generally the most competitive.
Artist communities vary in size, location, format, and competitiveness, so it is important to do some homework before applying.
How To Find An Artist Community That is Right For You
The first planned artist colony in the United States was The MacDowell Colony, which hosted its first artists in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1907. Historic colonies like , MacDowell, and The Hambidge Center were part of a larger movement to establish intentional communities in the early part of the century 20th century.
Since that time, the idea has spread. Now, there are over 250 residency programs in the United States, and an estimated 800 communities in over 40 countries worldwide.* Currently, more than 12,000 artists a year benefit from residencies. As grant money for individual artists has decreased in the past decades, residency programs have become an even more important source of financial support for composers, writers, visual artists, filmmakers, designers, dancers, performers, and other creative individuals. Artists’ communities in the U.S. provide more than $36 million in direct support to artists each year in the form of stipends, travel, materials, room/board, technical support, etc.*
Submitting applications to residency programs takes time and money, so before you apply, it is helpful to do some research, as well as some self evaluation about what type of program would be the best fit for you. Here are a few things to consider…
How much time do you need and how long can you be away from your family and day job?
Most artists struggle to balance jobs, family, and other demands along with their creative work. This endless tug of war between doing the work you love, paying the bills, and spending time with the people you care about is one of the most difficult parts of being a working artist.
The good news is there are residencies that are as short as a few days and others as long as a year or two, depending on your schedule and situation. (The average stay at an artist community is two months.)*
I know several artists who attended lengthy residencies when they were younger, but winnowed their residencies down to two or three precious weeks once they became parents. Negotiating time off with your family and employer is well worth the effort. Luckily, you don’t need two months away from home to reap the benefits of a retreat.
There are a handful of programs that permit spouses and partners to attend. Bogliasco, Bellagio, and Penland are a few examples. Some residencies, such as the Leighton Artists’ Colony at The Banff Centre in Canada, Roswell, and The Headlands Center for the Arts allow children, as well as companions. Most programs do not allow pets, however, because of allergy issues with other residents, so it’s wise to find someone who will care for your pet while you’re away. You may also be able to find pet care near the residency program you’ll be attending. The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown generously permits spouses, children, and pets during their seven-month residencies.
Once you have decided on an ideal length of residency, carefully consider your financial needs.
If money is tight, you may want to restrict yourself to programs that have no cost and/or can provide you with additional financial support to cover travel, supplies, shipping, lost income, or living expenses. Some artists sublet their apartments while they’re away to help cover rent and utilities. Finding a residency program that is close to home may save money on travel expenses. Be sure to examine the real financial impact of lost wages, pet care, travel, and other expenses.
Before applying to a program, find out the organization’s expectations. Will you have to pay some money toward your stay or is the residency free? Is food provided or will you have to shop and cook for yourself? Some programs don’t offer meals, but do provide a stipend to cover food expenses. Can you get by without a car while you’re in residence or will you need to rent a vehicle? Be sure to check out all of these details BEFORE applying. If an artist community is not able to offer enough financial support for your situation, you can explore outside funding sources, such as foundation or state arts council grants.
The Alliance of Artist Communities lists funding sources on their website
Don’t forget to factor in application fees when assessing cost. You may want to apply to several programs in order to increase their chances of being accepted somewhere. Most residencies charge a fee to help cover the cost of staff time and other admissions expenses, so it is useful to read the admissions guidelines closely if you have limited funds to spend on the application process. Be sure to keep detailed financial records of all application fees and other expenses associated with your residency since most of these charges are tax deductible.
What specific project would you like to work on at a retreat and what phase is the project in?
An honest evaluation of your own work is helpful for many reasons. For one, artist communities are more useful in some creative stages than in others. If you are in the beginning phase of a non-fiction piece that requires a lot of research, for example, it may not be the best time to squirrel yourself away in the woods with no Internet access or university libraries at your disposal. (Though a residency at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library might be the perfect fit). If you are a librettist working with a composer, you may want to find a retreat that accepts collaborative applications. Are you just finishing a first draft of a novel and anticipating your first major revision? Residencies are great for this type of deep, concentrated work. Do you need access to special equipment, such as a kiln, a darkroom, woodworking tools, or an etching press? If so, does the residency program provide the tools and equipment you need?<
Most residency programs will require you to submit a work sample and describe the project you’d like to work on during your retreat. When applying, it is important to explain your project articulately and to provide a quality work sample. Don’t submit work before it’s ready. This doesn’t mean that a project can’t evolve in the future or that your work sample must be finished, but when you apply you should be able to articulate your needs and how a residency will help you accomplish your specific artistic goals.
Having a particular project in mind before applying will also help you with the application process. Many programs divide their applications into different disciplines, such as composition, writing, visual art, architecture, film, design, etc. in order to help with the evaluation process. This is not to pigeonhole you as an artist, but to assure that the best judge or panel reads and evaluates your application. While some projects, like writing a play or a symphony or creating a series of paintings, fall into clear-cut application categories, other projects like video and sound installations, animation, choreography, songwriting, graphic novels, ceramics, storytelling, fiber arts, or landscape architecture can be harder to define. Many residencies do not accept applications for purely academic projects (though creative non-fiction is often acceptable); other residencies welcome applications from scholars.
If you are unsure if an artist community accepts applications in your field, call or email the program for feedback. A staff member who understands the admissions process should be able to recommend the artistic category that is the best fit for your work and confirm that your project meets the program’s requirements. Trust the advice you receive and don’t get hung up on definitions. If a program does not accept applications in your artistic discipline, don’t be discouraged. Residencies serve a wide cross-section of artists, from woodworkers and weavers, to graphic designers and dancers. You can be sure there is a program out there that is right for you.
One last piece of advice about your application: the more specific and focused you can be about your project the better your odds of acceptance.
Not only is it helpful to assess the particulars of your creative project, but it is also useful to do an honest assessment of your skill level and experience as an artist.
Are you an emerging artist or do you have an established career? If you are just starting out and know that your work could improve, it may be helpful to apply to a residency that provides some mentorship or one that is less competitive. Teachers and peers may be willing to suggest a program that is right for you. You can also look at residency websites or newsletters to get a better feel for the artists who are attending specific retreats.
While there are plenty of talented, emerging artists who are accepted to competitive programs, most artists pay their dues before applying for a Guggenheim or expecting an invitation to a competitive, prestigious program like the Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome. So by all means have confidence in yourself and your work, but also be realistic in your expectations.
How interactive or solitary do you want to be during your residency?
Are you the kind of artist who prefers to work in a busy coffee shop or the type who needs silence and privacy? Retreats vary in size and mission. At some programs, you may be the only artist in residence, while at other retreats you may be in a community with as many as 30-50 other artists. Studio spaces may be shared or private. It is useful to find out details about size and studios before applying so you aren’t disappointed.
Over the years, many artists have confessed to me that they were surprised by how much they enjoyed the company and support of their fellow artists while in residence at a colony. Artists have told me that they anticipated solitude and productivity during their retreat, but that they didn’t expect to be so engaged and energized by the other artists in residence or to make so many new friends.
Meeting like-minded, creative individuals can bring a sense of community that you may find lacking in your daily life. Retreats are an opportunity to network, seek feedback from peers, to learn more about the contemporary art scene, to discuss the challenges of the creative life, to brainstorm solutions, and to share experiences and resources. You will likely leave a residency with new ideas, new work, and new friendships.
When you arrive for your retreat, be open minded, tolerant, and give your fellow residents a chance. Go easy on yourself too. You’re unlikely to make much progress on your work the first day or so and the first few days of a retreat can be the hardest. Give yourself time to adjust to your new surroundings and your new community. The fewer expectations you have about the residency experience, the better. Try to be flexible about your assigned work space, your meals, and your peers. It’s valuable to depart from your usual routine–to eat new food, meet new people, and try new work schedules.
There are often opportunities to share your creative work, knowledge, and skills both with the other artists in residence, as well as with the local community.
More than 85% of residencies have public programming, including workshops, exhibitions, school outreach, readings, open houses, and performances.* Participating in outreach is a wonderful way to give back, and it can be a great opportunity to connect with a new audience. Some retreats require this type of public interaction, while others make it optional. Whether you prefer to be solitary or social, or a mixture of both, there is a program out there that is right for you.
It’s also valuable to consider the type of work environment that is the best fit for you and your project.
Artist communities are some of the largest land-holders in the arts. According to the Alliance “more than 70% of artists’ communities are involved in eco-stewardship activities of some kind. One-fifth are on or adjacent to protected lands (national parks, nature preserves, conservation easements, etc.), 11% are listed on the National Historic Register, 4% are on working farms and ranches.”* This diversity makes it possible to find a geographic environment that suits your needs. Some programs, such as the Blue Mountain Center, have a specific interest in projects that address social and ecological concerns or in projects that utilize the surrounding environment in some way. The Sitka Center for Art and Ecology accepts applications from natural science scholars, as well as fine artists.
Retreat environments vary in other ways as well. Hedgebrook, located on Whidbey Island overlooking Pugent Sound, supports women writers, while Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires caters to dancers and choreographers. Studio spaces may be very rustic or quite luxurious. Quite a few residencies offer artist studios that are wheelchair accessible, but some programs do not have the funds to make historic buildings fully accessible. Some retreats restrict cell phone and Internet use, while others provide artists with a wide range of high-tech equipment and digital connectivity. If you have specific needs that aren’t addressed on an artist community’s website, call or email the program to find out more details.
As individual grant money becomes harder for artists to obtain, residencies are stepping up to the plate to provide crucial support. Artist communities can provide you not only with funding and the time and space to bring a creative project to fruition, they can also provide you with a network of supportive peers–a network that may continue to offer support even after your residency ends. To connect with peers who take your creative work seriously and believe in the value of the arts can bring you new-found confidence and productivity.
The Alliance of Artist Communities, an organization that supports artists and artist retreats, is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about residencies. The Alliance provides one of the most comprehensive lists of residency programs available. Their list thoroughly describes each community, it’s application requirements, the residency’s mission, the program’s size and competitiveness, admissions deadlines, acceptance rates, a sample list of residents who have attended the program, location, housing, meals, eligibility, rules about visitors and pets, the type of financial support offered, and more. This is the best resource for residency programs I’ve seen.
At present, the residency directory is available on the Alliance website. Setting up a free log-in and subscription at the Alliance will allow you to do a residency search and give you access to all of the detailed information mentioned above. Becoming a member of the Alliance entitles you to further benefits.
Do you have a favorite artist retreat to recommend or helpful advice to share with artists who are considering a residency? Gwarlingo welcomes your feedback in the “comments” section below.