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

Started in 1979 be Dr. Carl Djerassi to honor the death of his daughter Pamela, who was a painter and poet, this colony has had an interesting two decades. Perhaps the most different thing about it is its location, just outside San Francisco. It offers twelve one-month-long residences every year, and there is just one studio available for a composer per session—though from all accounts it is the most beautiful studio in the place. Djerassi is the largest colony on the west coast, and though its guest list is not quite as distinguished as the larger colonies on the east (not yet, at any rate) it is certainly becoming a hotspot for emerging composers, those at the beginning who are just reaching to the middle. It’s a different rhetoric at Djerassi: whereas in most places, people come and go, here artists enter and leave together at the beginning of each month.

A year before Djerassi, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts opened its doors. It began as a picturesque farm in Charlottesville owned by one Edith Newcomb, who was looking for a way to put it to good use—her friend, writer Elizabeth Coles Langhorne, herself a denizen of artists’ colonies, thought that it ought to be converted; she had in her mind the words of fellow Virginia author Nancy Hale, who said: “…if Virginia really wanted to further the arts, it could do so easily, moreover cheaply, by purchasing an abandoned motel and staffing it for writers to write in—feeding them and seeing that they were uninterrupted.” So VCCA was born.

VCCA functions in exactly the same way as MacDowell and Yaddo, except that rather than having a lunch brought to your studio, you are packed one in the morning. However, in the interest of full disclosure, there seem to be more complaints about this colony than the others. For one, apparently, the food is not too good; and another issue is the money. It’s a delicate thing, the discussion of how one is to pay for one’s time at a colony—it does cost them to keep you, and it is nice to give back. At MacDowell and Yaddo, it is clearly done on a pay-what-you-can model, where people really genuinely want to pay for their experience, to help as much as they can; VCCA seems to be a little more up front about it, asking even on the application form how much of the $30 daily fee you think you would be able to pay. Of course it has no bearing on admission, but it is a little intimidating. The good news: VCCA is a touch easier to be admitted to; their list of past composers outlines a formidable group of names, and the place certainly is respectable, but it is for many a “starter” colony. Also, they are good in a pinch, sometimes accepting people last minute, should they “need” it and there is space available.

Since 1974 when it opened, the Millay Colony—named after poet Edna St. Vincent Millay—over one thousand artists have spent time there. It is located in Columbia County, New York—just near the border of Massachusetts’ Berkshires, where Tanglewood is located—on grounds called Steepletop where the Millay barn was built in the early 30s. This is where the poet spent the latter part of her life; in 1973 her sister, Norma, opened the colony. Space for composers at Millay is rather limited, so the list of past inhabitants is not terribly long—Seymour Shifrin is perhaps the best known. They are, like VCCA, a place where people can go who are just at the beginning of their careers. On their website is a quote that says it all, not just about Millay but colonies in general: “What all of our artists have in common, in addition to their talent, is the need to exist for a month in ‘art’s unbounded time’ and in the privacy of their studio where artists are alone with their work.”

From Colonial Power
By Daniel Felsenfeld
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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