Connecting the dots. Backwards.

A close look at three interesting arts residencies to discover what makes them unique, successful, and sustainable.

During 2005, Steve Jobs delivered his commencement speech to the graduates of Stanford University. In this opportunity he shared stories about his own life and alleged that a person, can't connect the dots looking forward, and that these can only be connected looking backwards. The metaphor was intended to transmit the idea of faith and confidence, believing that the dots will connect down the road, as one moves forward in life and despite all apparent odds.

Throughout history there have always been artists with the desire to explore, connect and broaden their world-views. With the intention to learn more about the history, evolution and individuality of three particular and diverse residencies, Res Artis spoke with the directors of three Res Artis members whose combined years of experience amount to an impressive knowledge base - Cheryl Young (MacDowell Colony), Kathleen Cerveny (The Cleveland Foundation) and Hanna Nurminen (Saari Residence).

Res Artis connected with these directors and found what makes their organisations unique, heard some inspiring stories about their spaces, and learned about their beginnings. Each, in its own way, ventured to open new areas of thought, research, and development leading the way and setting a path for others to follow. 

The MacDowell Colony (USA, 1907)

A pioneer. The perfect balance between social interaction and work focus.

The MacDowell Colony was founded more than 107 years ago, as a multi-disciplinary program by composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, the pianist Marian MacDowell. Located in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire (United States) and embedded in 450 acres of striking woodlands, the MacDowell Colony began as an experiment with no precedent. It stands now having provided crucial time and space to more than 6,800 artists and is still, of course, counting. Back in the day, the idea was to combine solitude, nature, and community to allow artists an opportunity to work uninterrupted within a stimulating cohort of other artists. The log cabin studio where Edward composed each summer (in between a full time professorship and demanding concert schedule) became the model for a working retreat. After Edward’s death, Marian built 20 more studios that now number a total of 33. Very little has changed with the daily routine: meal times at 7:30 am, lunch delivered to the studio and dinner with other artists at 6:30pm. Often artists will share their work in short informal presentations in the evenings. There is one and only rule that remains intact: not to visit another’s studio without permission.

“To prevent interruption, no mail was delivered to the studios or phones installed. With mobile reception in most places these days, being “unplugged” at MacDowell is a self-imposed preference.” says Cheryl Young, its director.

Through time, the number of international artists at MacDowell Colony has increased thanks to the internet and partially to the possibilities of funding for travel. MacDowell also has a special initiative to reach out to artists from the Middle East and that will continue during 2014. Keeping up with technology and the latest work, they have recently completed a new library building that houses over 10,000 samples of MacDowell Fellow work and are now working to expand beyond traditional formats (books, CDs, film, prints) to store and access digital samples of music, film, performances, and the visual art collection. One of their next digital upgrades will be a new mobile application that will be introduced this year and will allow the users to find MacDowell Fellow works all over the world. With this initiative, they intend to develop more audiences for the artists and help the public understand the important role that residencies play in a vibrant culture.

When asked about useful tips for potential applicants, Young recommends submitting the best sample work you can and have someone you trust tell you what your best work is. Applying in the least popular season will also increase your chances. Finally, she emphasized not to feel discouraged by rejection, as admission panels frequently change. Simply apply again.

Being a 107 year old organization, many people know about MacDowell, but what makes it special is that while some masterpieces of contemporary work have been created here, the admission process is open and remains the same for everyone. The panels are anonymous and free to reject or accept who they wish. Financial barriers have been removed, so there is a great variety of people who apply and are given the opportunity while still at the early stage of their careers.

MacDowell was founded by two artists as a dream; at the time, there was no precedent for a privately supported residency program. At the turn of the century there were utopian communities (permanent residential communities), academies (master and student artists focused on scholarship), and occasional patronage (for the lucky few). That an institution for unfettered experimentation by artists could survive on donations from the general public, and flourish during world wars, economic depressions, hurricanes, and changes in leadership from generation to generation is inspiring. The idealism of MacDowell has been mantained with so many other programs following after with variations on their model.

“We certainly feel it is worthwhile to continue to set the bar very high on what we owe to artists who make the world a better place for us all. Philanthropy can offset in part what the marketplace or government ignores.” she concludes.


The Cleveland Foundation (USA, 1914)

One of the oldest community foundations, now supporting residencies in an urban setting.

The Cleveland Foundation is one of the world’s original and now oldest community foundations. It started in 1914 under the efforts of banker and lawyer Frederick H. Goff. His vision was to pool the charitable resources of Cleveland’s philanthropists, living and dead, into a single, great, and permanent endowment for the betterment of the city. Community leaders would then forever distribute the interest that the trust’s resources would accrue to fund such charitable purposes that would best make for the mental, moral, and physical improvement of the inhabitants of Cleveland.

From that revolutionary idea, the Cleveland Foundation was born 100 years ago, on Jan. 2, 1914. Along the way, the Cleveland Foundation has bestowed more than $1 billion in grants, which together with the expertise of the foundation’s professional staff and partners, have touched millions of lives. Those resources have invigorated their region’s health care, communities, neighborhoods, schools, economic development programs, and of course arts and culture.

During the centennial anniversary of the Cleveland Foundation, the Creative Fusion International Artist Residency Program is also celebrating 5 years of existence. Creative Fusion is not a typical residency program, as there is no central residency center. This is an urban based, community engaged program for artists in all disciplines. Creative Fusion was conceived as a strategy to use the arts as part of the Cleveland Foundation’s globalization agenda for their city and as a partnership between the Cleveland Foundation and the many nonprofit cultural organizations in our arts and culture sector. Artists are hosted by Cleveland cultural organizations operating in their specific creative discipline. Artists live and work in the city but have studio space in locations arranged by their host. The artists are, therefore, deeply embedded in Cleveland and its physical, cultural and civic community. As a result artists have opportunities to network with local artists, enjoy the rich, world-class culture of Cleveland and share their culture with our community at both a personal and professional level. Hosted for three months, artists can create their own work, share their culture with the Cleveland community, and have opportunities for creative exchange with local artists.

“Over the program’s five years we have hosted nearly 30 artists from more than 15 counties, with a focus on artists from Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East. At the moment, Creative Fusion can host up-to 12 artists each year, divided between a spring and fall residency. We engage international nominators to suggest artists who would match their unique urban, community engaged program. Our local host organizations then select an artist from the nominated pool. In order to apply, artists must be identified by one of the program’s international nominators. There is no open application.” Indicates Kathleen Cerveny, its director.

To understand the vast diversity of this program, one should be aware that during March, the program welcomed six artists in the visual and performing arts from diverse countries including Vietnam, Romania, Egypt, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Pakistan. Local host organizations include a photography center, a modern dance company, a community multi-arts center, a contemporary gallery, a printmaking artist co-operative and an art and technology festival. If you are interested and become an artist at Creative Fusion, be open to experiences from their city and its people. When asked about useful tips for potential residents, Kathleen shares:

“Cleveland is not New York or Los Angeles. Its people are representative of what most of the United States is like. Let us know what confuses you, what worries you, what you don’t understand and if anything is making you unhappy. We want to help and to make you comfortable. We are very direct people. We welcome questions and want to try and solve any problems you may have and more important of all: be on time."

Iván Andrés Lecaros Correa., a Chilean printmaker resident at Creative Fusion, learned not only new techniques but a completely new way of thinking about how to organize the isolated and competitive artist community in his home city into a cooperative and inclusive studio where artists share ideas and techniques and support each other’s work. In Cleveland, several local artists developed deep friendships with visiting artists from China and Mexico, and have since been invited to travel to those communities to share their American approach to the visual arts.

Saari Residence (Finland, 1956)

A well to exchange thoughts, ideas, problems, and solutions.

The Saari Residence is a manor owned and maintained by the Kone Foundation as a research and production facility for researchers and artists. The Saari Residence is located in the Mietoinen district of Mynämäki, an attractive thriving Western Finnish agricultural region. Close by the Manor is Mietoinen Bay, which is home to a wide variety of birdlife and near a preserved oak forest. For various reasons, the Kone Foundation Board of Trustees was seeking new and more active and effective ways of supporting art and sciences than merely awarding grants.

“We wanted to offer artists and researchers an opportunity for peace and tranquility and a possibility to focus on their creative work undisturbed, and for this reason, we decided to construct our own residency programme.” says its director, Hanna Nurminen.

The main building of the residence is located in the middle of the park and constructed in the late Gustavian style in 1779, although its cellars date back much further, to the 1560s. The residence is flanked by two courtyard buildings, a kitchen wing and staff quarters. In the park there is also a sauna, granary, and other outbuildings, along with a small outhouse toilette, dating from the early 19th century. In the stone barn nearby the manor there is workspace for artists.

“The Saari Well started as a concept developed by our board. Throughout the ages, people all over the world have gathered around wells to collect water, and in many places they still do. There they exchange thoughts, ideas, problems and solutions. Everyone present gives and everyone receives, each in his or her turn. The Saari Well offers an opportunity for the artists and researchers at the Saari Residence to meet, share ideas, and leave their own mark on each other’s thinking, work, and on the residence itself. Saari Residence is constantly trying to develop new ways of taking the best possible care of their artists in residence. At the moment we are planning the programme of their next summer school held in August 2014, the theme of which will be “art and activism.” Says Hanna.

The two-month residencies are intended for individual artists, translators and critics of all different disciplines and all nationalities for the purpose of carrying out a project proposal presented in advance. For each two-month residency period, diversity is emphasized: both Finnish and foreign; and young and more experienced artists are chosen, as well as artists representing different art forms. Another central criterion is that the artist’s work is innovative and current. The objective is that at least some residents represent new or marginal art forms. Researchers and nonfiction writers working under a Kone Foundation grant are also eligible for residency.

The Saari Residence offers artists the opportunity for peace and tranquility, and the possibility to focus on their creative work undisturbed. The Saari Well is also an opportunity for artists and researchers working at the manor to meet, share, and leave their mark on each other’s thoughts, work and the Saari Residence. Residents can also participate on the projects of the Saari Residence’s Community Artist, who works in the residence all year round.
To understand how the Saari Well works, one should have a look at one of the best possible examples of the spirit of the Saari Residence. In 2012, London-based visual artist Oreet Ashery came to the Saari Residence to work on her new film Party for Freedom. During her residency, Ashery became acquainted with Finnish composer Timo-Juhani Kyllönen, who was also working at the Residence. Artistic collaboration between the two began in the Saari Residence. Ashery´s work explores representations of liberation, trash aesthetics, and political ideas about nakedness. But Party for Freedom is as much a work of music and sound as it is one of moving images. The work now includes a soundtrack with compositions by Kyllönen and music by the punk band Woolf from London.

From a pioneering summer residency in New Hampshire; to a community foundation in Cleveland; and a Well residence in Finland, we can find several similarities, but, more so, a lot of distinctiveness.

We hope some of these stories will get you interested in discovering more of the many hidden dots to be connected between the history of artist residencies and their current incarnations. Get inspired to seek out the history of your own residency programs and experiences.

At the moment, Res Artis has more than 480 artist residencies members - organisations that have interesting stories to tell and that arose out of a need to fill a niche. Many of these stories will link you to a past that allows you to respond to the present.
It is only when we look into the history of some of the current ongoing residency programs that we understand the many actions, movements, energies, and persons that it has taken to mold, define, and sharpen what we now consider as exemplary arts residency programs.

It is by connecting the dots - backwards - that we fully see how residencies have been building themselves to offer time, space, and guidance for current and future artistic communities.

Encounter the world in residencies!

About the author

Alvaro de Salvo runs relationships with Res Artis members and is in charge of our internal and external communications such as the newsletters, the Res Artis website and social media.