In the early 2000s, artists Julie Mehretu and Paul Pfeiffer, working with architectural historian Lawrence Chua, acquired a 200-acre plot of farmland in the southern Catskills, about 100 miles north of New York City. They built a barn where Mehretu painted her first large-scale abstract paintings and Pfeiffer created Orpheus Descending (2001), a video installation that tracked the 10-week growth of chicks. “We had cool people coming up in a rudimentary way, we had harvest celebrations, and we shared the place with a larger community,” Mehretu told ARTnews. “It wasn’t until four or five years later when we put something more structural into place.”
In 2008, they formalized the project as a residency program, Denniston Hill (DH), which became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In Mehretu’s words, the artists “began thinking about what it means to have access to a space, with a particular history, as queer folks of color.” She also framed the project as one that could potentially contribute to the “history of the decolonial project” of land stewardship.
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The program has slowly scaled up, and in 2021 hired its first full-time executive director, Megan Steinman, who said DH is “an organization that doesn’t rely on individual people, but on a collection of relationships that are formed by how people work together.”
DH is one of several artist-led residency programs in the Northeast that have been formed in the past decade. Seeking cheaper, bigger spaces, their founders have ventured beyond New York City, and have in the process formed these initiatives in an effort to stave off the isolation of traditional studio practices. Some of these programs have even evolved into institutions in their own right.
Among the more well-known is the Church, formed by the artist couple Eric Fischl and April Gornik in Sag Harbor, on Long Island. Their program includes residencies and an exhibition space, and was opened in 2021 in a deconsecrated 19th-century Methodist church they purchased in 2017.
Fischl and Gornik have lived in the town since 2004, and wanted to establish a hub for both engaging locals and bringing in outside artists to make new work. To achieve this, they appointed a board and staff early on.
“Our biggest problem in terms of financing is that people think that April and I are the ones funding it, and think it’s a vanity project,” Fischl said in an interview. “Part of what we’re doing, and what Sheri [Pasquarella, the Church’s director] is doing, is trying to dissuade people from thinking that. We’re going to help support the Church as long as it’s viable, but the public needs to want it to be there.”
Support has been strong in its inaugural year, and programming has flourished. “We started with Martha Graham Dance Company before we officially even opened because it fell into our laps,” Gornik recalled.
‘I Pick Them Up in My Vehicle’
Jeremy Dennis, who sits on the board of the Church, is the founder of his own residency program. An artist and a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, he began Ma’s House in 2021 in his family’s historic home, where he and his partner live and work alongside the residents. The program is open to Indigenous artists and artists of color, who can send their interest via the organization’s website.
“I pick them up in my vehicle, and then they are set to do whatever they want for two weeks,” Dennis said. There are few requirements—residents must only give a public talk—and any artists who participate get a small stipend, thanks to funds from Creatives Rebuild New York. “The only difficulty is that with Shinnecock rules, you can only have guests if you’re physically here,” Dennis explained. That means he must balance having visiting artists with his own residency schedule. He’s managed it well, having hosted 19 residents and overseeing regular programs, including a weekly beadwork workshop led by his mother.
Ma’s House is one example of a smaller and scrappier residency and exhibition space. Others of this scale have popped up as a result of artists seeking affordable studios outside the city.
Cheryl Donegan recalled the ease of showing her paintings at Freddy, a project run by painter Joshua Abelow in an old Methodist chapel in Monticello, New York. “It was a luxury,” she said. “I packed a rental car with everything I had made during the pandemic, didn’t worry about shipping costs, and we kicked around ideas.”
Abelow began Freddy in a Baltimore storefront and moved the project upstate when he bought the chapel in 2016. He paints in the nave, and the gallery space is a room connected to his bedroom. For Donegan’s show, he temporarily installed works over his bed and on the paint-chipped exterior.
Except for the occasional sale of artwork, Freddy’s is self-funded. “It’s not a good fit for a lot of artists because many want to have that monetary exchange be one of the primary goals,” he said in an interview. “It’s for folks who are going to be excited about the context that Freddy can provide.” That includes the change of pace. “When you come up here, it’s not like when you go to a gallery downtown, where you walk in, and you look at stuff, and then you leave. You come here and spend an afternoon, and you’re also in my house. Sometimes we all get a meal after.”
Walter’s, the contemporary wing of the Walter Elwood Museum, is the brainchild of Brent Birnbaum. After finding his dream studio space in an old carpet factory in Amsterdam, New York, Birnbaum was brought to a quirky local museum to sign the lease. He recalled thinking: “It is 18 rooms. All have different carpet. Everything is crooked and dusty. I was in heaven.”
Birnbaum proposed curating a contemporary program to the museum’s one staff member, and he was given 1,200 square feet free of charge. He built out a gallery space and a zine store. The exhibition program merges works by artists from the greater Albany region with those from the city. “Moving forward,” he said, “the museum is going to let artists pull objects from the collection and bring them into the gallery or otherwise respond to them.”
Cavernous, subterranean architecture is the draw of lower_cavity, a residency in western Massachusetts run by multimedia artist Anthony Discenza. In 2020, he began inviting friends to work in the 3,000-square-foot basement of an old papermill, where he rents the above-ground levels as commercial space. “I leave it up to the artists how they want to use the residency,” Discenza told ARTnews.
The artist Supermrin spent two months at lower_cavity making and installing a malleable, plant-based material she has developed from lawn clippings. Sourcing brush from local orchards, she sculpted the material into the basement’s arches and hallways, “I think the most useful thing was having an environment that is not your typical gallery space,” she said in an interview. “Because my work is so experimental and biological, it’s been useful to utilize a large space without too many conditions for sanitizing.”
Another former resident, Jak Ritger, shared that lower_cavity is unique in how difficult it was to maneuver. “It’s massive, so I was exhausted just walking back and forth while I was making my light installation. It’s also really dirty, all of my equipment got dusty.” Still, Ritger cited it as an exciting challenge. He made photos, installations, and research-based work in response to the building’s industrial history.
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Ritger put lower_cavity on the radar of Joshua Citarella and the online collective Do Not Research. DNR, as it’s known for short, formed when artists began making works and blog posts in response to readings Citarella made public on Discord, from courses he taught at RISD and SVA. By last spring, DNR had over 1,600 users and was seeking a venue for its first de-virtualized exhibition. lower_cavity’s decentralized floor plan was appealing. “We were the first show to be in this sunken room that looks a little bit like a catacomb or a doomsday bunker,” Citarella said. “The space played into a lot of the radical internet politics vibes that were very present in the show.” The exhibition featured 46 artworks by 41 artists. Over 150 people came for the opening; many had never met in person.
Citarella says he couldn’t have imagined a better venue for DNR’s inaugural show, and that was largely due to it being artist-run. “Tony was like our guiding angel through this whole process of a rigorous install. It was a profound experience.”
A Residency’s Lifespan
Running a program is taxing for an artist to balance on top of their own practice. In an interview, Titus Kaphar, who cofounded NXTHVN, a residency and fellowship organization for artists of color in New Haven, Connecticut, stressed this: “I want artists who feel like this is something that they’re being called to do. And not to feel like it’s an obligation or a burden. I hope that this doesn’t become a necessary part of one’s existence, as artists of color in the world, that to be successful you have to create your own institution. Because that’s a lot of work.”
Some endeavors, like Denniston Hill, the Church, and NXTHVN, have staff and structures in place for posterity, while others may have shorter runs. “I don’t know what I would do with a staff, ” Discenza admitted. “At some point, I will not be in Western Massachusetts, and at some point, I will not have access to this kind of space. lower_cavity will have its natural end.”
Artists are perhaps best positioned to understand the needs of other artists, and experiment with new ways of meeting these needs, especially when challenges arise. An underlying motivation for all of these pursuits is that this work can be generative for the instigators, too. “I’m doing this because it feels consistent with what my work, in general, is about” Kaphar said. “It feels revelatory in my continued experience as an artist.”