No other country in the world has provided so many carefree sites for artistic expression than the United States, where 130 such artists' colonies are in operation and perhaps 50 new ones are in the process of organization. Some 4,000 residents are accommodated annually on a no fee or low fee basis.
The idea dates back to 1907 when composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian, created the first artists' colony in Peterborough, N.H., modeled on the communal living facilities of the American Academy in Rome of which MacDowell was a trustee. The MacDowell Colony plays host annually to nearly 200 artists in 32 studios on a 450-acre woodland site for periods of a month to two months.
Jonathan Franzen, who won the 2001 National Book Award for fiction for his novel, "The Corrections," has been a three-time MacDowell resident and thanked the colony in the book's credits for a work experience best described by another MacDowell resident, historian Barbara Tuchman. She once described the colony as "a kingdom of happiness where I completed more work than I ever have before in a comparable period."
"To enter one's assigned studio in the morning in the expectation of a whole day with no distractions to intrude on the project at hand, and to look forward to a succession of days for the continuity that is so hard to obtain elsewhere, is to feel oneself in the possession of a kingdom," Tuchman wrote.
The ideal colony experience includes a lunch pail quietly left at the artists' studio door, a happy hour before dinner in front of a roaring fireplace in the communal drawing room followed by a hearty repast with stimulating conversation and an hour of cards, Ping-Pong, billiards, music and more conversation before early retirement.
But since colonies can range from vast country estates and modest pastoral retreats to an abandoned military post and a renovated urban factory, the experience can vary considerably. Some colony residents have to shop for and prepare their own food and share in housekeeping duties, but for many residents duties are nil and they are on the honor system to be productive as creative artists.
Examples of an applicant's work have bearing on their acceptance by each colony's resident selection committee, but there is no requirement as to accomplishment during a residency with a few exceptions. Residents are expected to leave a work of art at Wheaton Village, a glass artists' center in New Jersey, or to give a slide lecture at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Neb.
Some colonies are devoted to a single art form, such as the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts near Helena, Mont., while many others are interdisciplinary. There are colonies that welcome repeat residencies and others that offer only one-time residency. Some require residents to pay for artistic materials, while others provide them free. Travel expenses usually are borne by residents, but even they can be underwritten.
Colonies are constantly seeking new sources of funding so existing fees can eventually be eliminated, but this is difficult at a time when federal funding of the arts is being decreased and the dampening effect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack has affected corporate and foundation support. Most funding still comes from private individuals, some 98 percent in the case of the MacDowell Colony.
Tricia Snell, executive director of the Alliance of Artists' Communities which promotes the colony concept, told United Press International that even though many artists' communities must charge residency fees to cover some operating costs, "a stay is still a bargain when you consider the tangible benefits: time, space, facilities, the company of peers, and freedom from domestic chores."
The alliance publishes "Artists Communities," a catalog of its member colonies to assist artists in applying for residencies. Each entry includes the names of famous artists who have enjoyed residencies in the past and created some of their best-known work there. Some of them were emerging artists when they were in residence; others were well-established talents.
The alumni of Yaddo, the 400-acre colony at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that is perhaps the most prestigious of all artists' communities, reads like a Who's Who. It includes artists Milton Avery and Clyfford Still, poet William Carlos Williams, composers Aaron Copland and Ulysses Kay, and authors James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, and Langston Hughes.
Some of the colonies even have Who's Who names. Weir Farm, the former home of noted 19th century painter J. Alden Weir at Branchville, Conn., is a National Historic Site, the only unit of the national Parks System devoted to painting. Another, Millay Colony for the Arts, is a memorial to Edna St. Vincent Millay, established by the celebrated poet's sister at Millay's 600-acre estate in Austerlitz, N.Y.