Published August 1, 2022

Residencies at Skowhegan & MacDowell are a Year Round Effort

By Anni Irish

Aerial view of Skowhegan's Upper Campus. Photo by Christopher Carroll; Courtesy of Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture

Residencies play a significant role in helping artists get to the next stage in their career. These programs provide a necessary framework for an artist to cultivate a new body of work, experiment, and network. While each residency is unique, all provide accepted artists with access to studio space, workshops, tools and equipment, and a talented faculty. 

Today, a number of historic residencies have the potential to put artists on the map. Let's take a look at two of those programs, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Drawing and MacDowell. 

Skowhegan School of Painting and Drawing

Located in Maine, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Drawing is a 9-week residency which accepts artists across a wide range of mediums. The program greatly encourages residents to not only experiment but also engage with process based work during their time there. Founded in 1946, this residency emerged  as one of the best and most competitive to attend.  Artists who are accepted are given complete control of what they do with their time there; they also have the opportunity to attend weekly lectures and receive criticism and feedback from peers and faculty.

Skowhegan’s  operation is very cyclical and dictated by the seasons. There is a huge amount of work that falls on their staff to be able to open up their campus each year to a new class of artists. There are year round staff members that work in many capacities within the organization ranging from administrative, maintenance, sitting on the board and others.  

"On campus, our work follows the seasons in some sense. In the spring, we are opening buildings, clearing out space, and thinking about what happened in the previous summer—what we learned, observed, and want to consider making space for as we head into the next season. It is a time of newness, excitement," said Skowhegan co-directors Sarah Workneh and Katie Sonnenborn.

Faculty Artist Alice Neel during a group critique, 1979. Courtesy of Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture

Following the end of the summer program, the staff must turn over studio spaces, dorms, and cabins. “We only have about 9 months to tackle large projects before the next summer because of the extreme weather. Our maintenance team does incredible work in raising buildings in a short window. In the fall, our on-site team returns to their homes—most of whom work at schools and universities around the country, and begin teaching at their regular jobs,” Workneh and Sonnenborn noted. 

Over the years, Skowhegan produced an impressive roster of artists who attended and taught at the residency. Several notable artists include Sanford Biggers, John Cage, and Alex Katz. Some of the impressive faculty include Alice Neel, Adrian Piper, Frank O'Hara, The Guerrilla Girls, Kara Walker, and Allen Ginsburg among others.

James Baldwin (second from left) among the 1954 Fellows at MacDowell. Bernice B. Perry photo, courtesy of MacDowell

MacDowell

MacDowell is another elite residency in New England. Located in Peterborough, NH, the property was originally bought in 1896 by Marian McDowell to serve as a summer residence for her and her husband. 

MacDowell is strongly committed to protecting the natural beauty of its grounds, which consist of 31 studios and nine administrative buildings. The program  aims to become a zero emissions process and is  renovating one studio per year to achieve this mandate. 

There are 33 full time staff members who are based in New Hampshire and New York City. 

"Running a residency like MacDowell is a huge undertaking and it relies on a dedicated staff that believes in our mission of nurturing the arts by offering talented individuals an inspiring residential environment in which to produce enduring works of the creative imagination," said Jonathan Gourlay, Senior Manager of External Communications, at MacDowell.

At MacDowell, artists are given 24/7 access to their studios and can set their own schedule. They also have access to a state of the art library, various workshops, lectures, and other events. 

Like Skowhegan, MacDowell created a name for itself in the art world and beyond. Over the years, many successful artists participated including James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Milton Avery, Aaron Copland, and Barbara Tuchman.  MacDowell is not just a creative hub for visual artists.

James Baldwin Library at MacDowell. John W. Hession photo, courtesy of MacDowell

How competitive are residencies?

While some programs have larger application pools than others, nearly every residency program is competitive to attend. For example, Skowhegan  recruits 90 artists from their community to participate in the admissions decision process. Each year this group selects 65 artists from a pool of up to 2,500 people.  The selection process at Skowhegan in particular is very involved as the decisions must be based solely on submitted portfolios. Applicants are not able to write artist statements or provide CVs or letters of recommendation. 

Time commitment to attend a residency

Artists can attend residency programs that range between one week and one year. All of this is very dependent on the individual program. Skowhegan offers artists the opportunity to attend for 9 weeks whereas MacDowell’s program runs 2-6 weeks.

Edward MacDowell's log cabin. Jonathan Gourlay photo, courtesy of MacDowell

Future of residences 

A recent New York Times article reported that residencies all over the world are thriving despite the global pandemic.   As in-person events were not possible for much of 2020-21, a number of virtual residences sprung up. These programs are a combination of existing residences that shifted their model  and new e-residencies. Some programs even opted for a hybrid model offering both in-person and virtual components. 

While residencies such as Skowhegan and MacDowell are competitive and require a significant time commitment from artists, the programs offer increased exposure for artists that can result in the next phase of their career.

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