Colonial Power: An exploration of America’s most prominent artist colonies

If it sounds too good to be true, it is! The basic rhetoric for all colonies is pretty much the same: A community breakfast is served, cooked for you specially, at a set time. Usually by nine or so, all who actually made it to the first meal trot off to their studios to work, generally from then until six, with the only rule being not to disrupt other colonists—no unannounced visiting. You are unfettered and alone for these hours.

In some places, like MacDowell, lunch is brought to your studio by way of a pickup truck full of baskets, made to order; in other places, like the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), lunch is packed for you in the morning. Lunch at colonies is a big deal, believe it or not, likely because it is the only distraction offered in a studio. After a full day’s work, everyone regroups in a common space for supper, which, like breakfast, is prepared for you. Unlike breakfast, most people tend to show up! The evening’s activities can include more work (for the thoroughly focused; if this is your choice, people respect it) or presentations. One of the best things about attending a colony is the chance to be exposed to any number of different artists’ work—not just composers, but writers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, and interdisciplinary artists as well. These are often kept short and eventually dissolve into a party of some kind. Or, often times, people open studios as a space to hang out.

A stay at a colony can last anywhere from a week to a few months, depending on what you want, what they have available, and how flexible your schedule is—most often you are applying for a particular season. Money is a strange issue: it does cost to attend, but usually it is on a “whatever-you-can-afford” basis. Because more often than not an artist actually has to lose money to be able to come to a colony, they ask you to pay only what you can. This has no bearing on acceptance, but some colonies are a little more up front about their asking—it is on the VCCA application.

Rest assured, getting into one of these places is strictly meretricious, though there are certain things that need to be considered for first time appliers. Some colonies, like MacDowell, lean heavier towards new faces than others—like Yaddo, which certainly does accept new people, but it is not a large part of their mission. In any given year, a colony may receive over a thousand applications for around two hundred available fellowships, so it is not something to totally depend on if you are not well established. Picking your season can be crucial: remember, those who have heavy academic jobs will apply for summer residencies, so that season tends to be a little harder to manage unless you are a known quantity. Fall tends to be second most difficult, as that’s a beautiful time to be at many of them because of the autumnal leaves.

Admission is decided by an anonymous committee—you will never know who was on your panel, no matter how many people you ask. These panels tend to shift every few years, so applying multiple times is always a good idea. At most places, you can only apply once per year, so a winter rejection means that you must wait until the next winter to try again. Djerassi has only one application cycle per year, in February, and then the entire following year is decided—and there you get a month, no more no less; people enter and exit as a group, as opposed to the others, where there is a non-stop ebb and flow. All have application processing fees, but they are nominal.

From Colonial Power
By Daniel Felsenfeld
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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