Why You Should Apply to Artist Residencies

My filmmaker and writer friend David Licata and I first met in New York City when we both worked at a nonprofit. As a fellow artist, David casually mentioned one day that he was applying to artist residences. As a fresh-out-of-an-MFA program writer, I had no idea what an artist residence was. David encouraged me to apply, suggesting Centrum in Port Townsend, WA. I got in. For two weeks, I had a whole house to myself with no internet and no distractions. And I wrote like a fiend, but most importantly, played fetch with a dog on the beach. After David’s encouragement and more discussion, I found Hedgebrook, an artist residency for women writers. I applied, got wait listed, and magically got to go in May 2007. Hedgebrook was AMAZING. I was a newbie and I got to have dinner nightly with poets, playwrights, novelists, journalists, all while having all my meals made for me (I gained at least 5 pounds in two weeks) and a cottage to call my own.

David recently got accepted to The MacDowell Colony, the mothership of all artist residencies, and I just had to know what it was like. Special thanks to David for taking the time to share, including some great links to get your inner artist inspired to apply.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Manter. (left to right): Danica, Alina, Christian, and David Licata in the snowy woods of the MacDowell Colony.

Q: Why should any writer or artist apply for an artist residency?
A: The two obvious reasons are space and time. You’re given a studio to work and an amount of time where nothing is expected of you except for you to be your badass artistic self. Imagine, one month where you don’t have to go food shopping, cook, walk the dog, clean your bathroom, vacuum your shag carpeting. Your job, for one month, is to be creative. And in most places, you don’t even have to show that you produced anything. You can go and just think creative thoughts while you take hikes and play ping pong. (Ping pong is essential to the experience.)
The less obvious reason to go is the people you’ll meet. I’m not sure residencies are a networking opportunity, I always feel like that’s kind of a base reason to go, but inevitably you wind up helping each other out. One example: While at VCCA I was casually chatting to a poet. Most initial conversations start off with a variation of the following. “What’s your discipline? What are you working on here? How long are you here?” So, we’re chatting and I tell him about my film, and I tell him about the gospel music aspect of it, and he tells me that his father is a collector of old jazz films, and he might have some gospel films, and if I want, he could hook me up. Pretty cool. But more common, and more important to me, is you do become friends with amazing artists and your interactions with them will inform your work and enrich your life in ways you can’t even imagine at the time.

Q: What artist residencies have you been to and for how long?
A: I’ve been to Centrum Arts and Creative Education, Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, Jentel Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts twice, The MacDowell Colony, and in September I’ll be going to Blue Mountain Center. One of my stints at VCCA was for 5 weeks. I was at MacDowell for 6 weeks. The rest have been for one month.

Q: MacDowell is known for being one of top artist residencies in the country with the likes of James Baldwin, Alice Sebold, and Jonathen Frazen. You told me that you applied for several years in a row before you got in. What was it like for you when you got there?
A: I think I applied to MacDowell five times before I got in. When I first arrived it seemed a bit cliquey and I wasn’t sure I was going to do much socializing, and I was okay with that. Ultimately, I’m there to work, not hang out. But MacDowell has something like 24 people at any one time and among those folks you’re going to find your people and you wind up hanging out with them. People leave and new people stream in, mixing it up every which way.

Q: Was it as mythical as all the hype?
A: The quality of the art at MacDowell is very, very high, and many people are very, very successful. There were times when I thought, Did they make a mistake? I don’t belong here! But I got over that. I think each of the places I’ve been to have their own magic. (A slide show of images from MacDowell can be found here.)

Q: What did you learn from the other artists there?
A: Well, it’s not like you workshop or anything. Maybe some people look for input, but I’ve never met them. They’ll share their work, do a reading or have an open studio or presentation, but mostly they’re not looking for critique, and they won’t offer real critique unless you ask for it. They offer support and say nice things, but that’s different. I find the kinds of things I learn have less to do with the craft of making art and more to do with how to survive as an artist. For example, one thing I learned at Jentel came from a writer: she advised me that for each rejection I received, I should send out work to two new places. This doesn’t work so well with film, but with literary fiction, which has so many outlets, it works very well. I credit this technique with getting my written work out there. (To read some of David’s work online, click here, here and here.)

Sometimes you get lucky. When I was at my first residency at Centrum, a place you know well, I was storyboarding my short film, Tango Octogenario. While there I met a choreographer and told her about the film. She invited me to her rehearsal and asked me to videotape it. That inspired a lot of visual ideas and some of the choreography that wound up, in some form or another, in the finished film.

Another great thing is you get turned on to a lot of great stuff, not just the work being produced by your fellow artists, but books, art, and films that weren’t on your radar before. That happens a lot.

While I was at MacDowell I edited my documentary, A Life’s Work. Mostly I edited the voice over bits that will give the film its narrative structure. I did a little writing as well, revising a short story that’s part of a collection I’ve been working on forever.

Q: For writers who are considering applying to an artists residence, what is some advice you can share about the application process?
A: Apply, apply, apply and don’t get discouraged. I’ve spoken to some residency administrators and they’ve told me the number of applications have been increasing every year. Right now is probably the most competitive time to apply, since there are more trained artists and writers (folks with MFAs) than there have ever been, and many of those trained artists are unemployed; everyone’s thinking, I’ve got nothing else going on, might as well sublet the apartment, and eat for free.
Get good recommendations and ask your recommender to go into how you are a person who plays well with others. Summer is the most competitive time of year to apply so your chances are better if you apply for any other session. And finally, if you’re a writer and just need your laptop, apply all over the place. If you’re a visual artist with a ton of supplies, you might want to think about how you’re going to transport all your stuff if you live in New York and want to do a residency in Northern California.

Q: As a filmmaker, how does your artistry grow at a residence? What is the aftermath of coming back?
A: I think my artistry grew as result of being in a supportive and nurturing atmosphere. I feel like I’ve never really been with a bad group of folks, though in smaller residencies this can happen. It only takes one person in a group of six to make the whole experience miserable. (I haven’t experienced this, but I know others who have.) If you’re not getting along well with one person in twenty, well, you can pretty much keep out of each other’s hair.

Coming back is brutal. I’ve done six residencies now and you’d think re-entry would get easier, but I’m here to tell you it doesn’t. Re-entry from MacDowell was the most difficult yet. Let me give you an example of a typical day there. I woke up in my studio and had a brisk walk through snow-covered pine trees to have a warm breakfast served to me by a stellar cook. It was brought to my table, where I sat with some poets, novelists, composers, and painters. Then I’d go back to my studio where I edited. I’d take a break from editing to play guitar and then edit some more. Lunch was delivered to me, left quietly at my door. It was warm, delicious, and nutritious. There was even a fresh-baked cookie. Back to work. Then if I needed another break I’d read—I was into Faulkner short stories there. More work. Around 5:30 or 6:00 I’d shut down for the day and walk to MacDowell’s library on my way to dinner to check my e-mail (the studios don’t have Internet access, and that’s a great thing). I’d have a scrumptious dinner (MacDowell is very accommodating to those with dietary restrictions, by the way), served family style. Sometimes we’d just joke around, sometimes we’d talk about art, books, music, and films. There’d be wine. Then after that, ping pong. At MacDowell, a few of us played instruments, so we formed a band, sort of, and played old school country songs. A couple of times we played for the other artists and that was a blast.

That was a typical day there. (I haven’t even mentioned the dance parties or karaoke!) And while you’re there, you think, this is the way everyday of my life should be! But you come home and your life is nothing like that. Where’s my gigantic studio? Where are the pine trees? Where are those people I lived with for the last six weeks?

But brutal as re-entry is, it’s not going to stop me from applying again this year.


36 Comments on “Why You Should Apply to Artist Residencies”

  1. Five applications to MacDowell–wow! I applied there once, and once to Yaddo. When I didn’t get in, I stopped applying. You’ve inspired me, though–I’m thinking of applying somewhere else, maybe Centrum. Thanks.

    • Yes, David, really kept applying and applying until he finally got in to MacDowell. Definitely check out Hedgebrook, which has their 2011 application on their website right now. I tell all women writers to apply there.

  2. This is a great post! Thanks so much Jennifer! Very informative, I didn’t know much about artist residences either. Do you know if you can defer a year if somehow you went form unemployed to fully employed and couldn’t get off of work?

    Thanks again for the great info and resources! 🙂

    • Hi Ollin, thanks for reading. I’m not sure how deferment works. That would depend on the residency. Also, when I applied to Hedgebrook, I purposely applied for 2 weeks instead of one month because I was working full-time when I applied. Obviously, a month is better, but work with the time you have. Even a week at an artist residency is good.

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  6. Thanks for this. I took a month long residency in Italy and it changed my life. I’ve tried MacDowell before and didn’t get in – also nixed by the Guggenheim, albeit with a nice personal note. Other friends tried a few times before getting that one. But seeing that 5 times is a winner at MacD, I’ll quadruple my efforts!

  7. Victoria, I highly suggest you keep applying! And definitely think about applying to Hedgebrook. Their online application is on their site (http://www.hedgebrook.org/). I loved my stay there and always recommend women writers apply there. It’s a bit of writing heaven!

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  9. Hi, glad I found you here. I’m a visual artist living out of the US (in Israel) and sometimes feel out of the loop. I started thinking about residencies when I stopped having heavy teaching obligations….it sounds so great. So I naively applied to Yaddo and MacDowell–twice–and didn’t get in. Encouraging to read that persistence can do it! I’ll try again, just MacDowell and another place if I can find one. You could see my work at elinoreart.com. Yes, I’ve jumped into the digital world but retaining the love of the handmade.

    • Hi Elinore: Definitely keep trying and look into lesser known artist residencies. There are more residences beyond Yaddo and MacDowell. Good luck and keep up the great work.

  10. When applying to residencies, should you already know the subject or material? I’m a visual artist (drawing and painting) but if I wanted to go into a printmaking residency or a graphics design residency, residencies don’t tend to teach you something new? Is it usually about working in the materials you already know?

    • Hi! Artist residences are time for you to work on whatever project you are applying for. For instance, I’ve applied for a residence to finish a play. I wouldn’t apply to finish a nonfiction book since I have no expertise in that area. It’s meant to be a time for you to work on your chosen area of art. I hope that helps!

  11. Hi Jennifer, very useful info. Sounds fun! How is everything? I’m glad I came across your blog last year, you have interesting articles…thanks for the advice as well.

  12. This is awesome. I am waiting for the decision. As far as applying five times…do they let you do that each year or every two years?

  13. One issue with residency listings on websites (or of course in books) is that they give sometimes very outdated acceptance percentages. Hedgebrook looks like heaven, but it’s now one of the most selective in the country, at 3% acceptance — MacDowell and Yaddo are now both around 10% globally (lower for summers, a little higher during winters) — most recent Brush Creek and Millay rates were each 5%. I don’t know current stats for many others (some are close-lipped about stats), but the general point is never to take a no as a judgment of your creative work and keep applying to a wide range, since acceptance is quite rare at many!

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  16. Thank you, this was informative and encouraging. However, I’ve been disappointed to learn how many residencies charge substantial fees—not for applying, but for attending. Indeed, it seems most have a price tag. (It’s not a question of whether the experience is worth the cost; I think having a nice Rothko over the living room couch is well worth it, if you can afford it.) resartis does not enable you to limit your search by cost of attendance, and my initial googling attempts have borne no fruit. Do you know of a good list/database of free-to-attend residencies?

    • Hi Michael: Thanks for your question & reading. I’m not aware of a database or list of free artist residences other than the Reartis list. If the price is too high at some of the places you’re researched, have you considered taking yourself on an inexpensive writer’s retreat? I found a quiet place via Airbnb and stayed there for 3 days alone to get work done. I hope that helps!

    • Hi Michael,

      I don’t go to residencies that charge. I will go to a place like VCCA, which requests a donation but does not accept or reject you based on your giving.

      Resartis doesn’t seem to have a tick box for free residencies. I don’t know of a resources. In lieu of that, I guess use the tick boxes on the Resartis site to find a bunch that seem appealing and realistic and go to their web site for further information.

      Sorry I couldn’t help you more with this.


  17. Hi Jennifer. I am nearly eighty years old. Not much time left to go whole hog into writing but since I am now divorcing I will have the time to devote. I know of Yaddo as I lived upstate. Who gives grants? I dont know if I can afford retreats but I have inspiration. A newspaper did publish my letter from fifteen hundred mailings. we were four writers expressing an important opinion against a coroners finding. I have written all my life between dancing, directing etc. Is it too late or just open to the young? Any direction will help. My English teacher was writer Bel Kaufman who was famous for writing the book “Up The Down Staircase ” Our school was Performing Arts. in NYC Thank you. carla

    • I don’t think it’s ever too late to write. Yaddo is a big time artist residency, but there are plenty of others. Here’s a great list. You don’t usually have to pay for writing retreats. I don’t know much about grants. If you’re in NY, check out the Resources on the NY Foundation of the Arts website. If you want to write, you don’t need to go to a residency though. Just write. Every day. If a public library or a quiet bookstore can provide you some lovely space to be creative, use it, but you can certainly write in your own home. Artist residencies tend to look for writers with projects that they want to work on while they are attending the retreat. Hope that helps! Best of luck to you, Carla.

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