AIR Serenbe seeks to bridge the gap between artists in residence and community

New Territories playwrights with the staff of Serenbe Playhouse. Photos courtesy Carla Royal of Amblewood Gallery.
New Territories playwrights with the staff of Serenbe Playhouse. Photos courtesy Carla Royal of Amblewood Gallery.


New Territories playwrights with the staff of Serenbe Playhouse. Photos courtesy Carla Royal of Amblewood Gallery.
New Territories playwrights with the staff of Serenbe Playhouse. Photos courtesy Carla Royal of Amblewood Gallery.

Demystifying the artistic process is one of the challenges facing arts organizations — the days of a lone wolf artist who bestows her gifts on an adoring public are waning. Traditionally, artist residencies embrace isolation from the world as a means to produce work. The artist treks to some idyllic location removed from the hoi polloi, stocked with all the necessities of art production. Solitude begets art; however, it can be hard to secure funding for residency programs when the fruits of the investment happen behind closed — and often locked — doors. The demand for artists to operate outside of a vacuum is ever-increasing. Audiences want to be engaged and long for the experience of art. Balancing an artist’s need for space with the public desire to see artists at work is a growing challenge. 

For that reason, The Serenbe Institute’s artist residency program could be a game changer for how residencies are run — if they are able to continue their novel model in perpetuity. The new director for AIR Serenbe, Brandon Hinman, has developed a residency model with great intention, one that provides direct links between the artist and the community that sponsors them. With AIR Serenbe there is no mystery as to where a donor’s money goes. Benefactors fund themed residencies to draw in the artists they are most interested in. Incoming residents for AIR Serenbe’s 2016 year include a sequential artist, spoken word poet and a children’s author. This eclectic selection is by design — they are part of AIR Serenbe’s Focus Fellowship initiative. This program allows patrons to endow themed residencies, a full departure from conventional open-call style applications. Though discipline-specific residency awards are nothing new, building a program around them is.

AIR Sarah Kay. Photo courtesy AIR Serenbe and Jessica Ashley.
AIR Sarah Kay. Photo courtesy AIR Serenbe and Jessica Ashley.

The Focus Fellowships enable the community to discover the art they want to support. The roster includes The Walker Evans Fellowship for a photographer picturing the American South, The CoEsistere Fellowship for an artist whose work explores human population growth, and The Chrysalis Fellowship for artists who integrate science and the natural world. 

What amenities are offered distinguish the quality of different residencies. Some feed the artists, occasionally they offer equipment or supplies, and many residencies offer nothing at all. Very rarely do residencies cover travel funds, even those programs that are in far-flung foreign countries. For an artist, an ideal artist residency would provide food, space, equipment and a stipend. MacDowell, the oldest artist residency in the United States, offers it all, however, their program is so competitive artists can only apply every two years, regardless of whether or not they’re accepted.

For their month at Serenbe, artists are allotted a $1,500 stipend to offset the cost of food artists spend in the urban village. This is an incentive that will certainly make the program more attractive to professional artists.

Though only time will tell if AIR Serenbe will grow to become a residency on par with a place like Yaddo (where alums have MacArthur Grants, Pulitzers and Nobels), their 2016 roster is encouraging. For 2016, AIR Serenbe has signed on artists from Georgia like Pam Longobardi and Hannah Israel, as well as artists from around the country like Dame Wilburn, Anis Mojgani and Peter Happel Christian.

Resident Anis Mojgani. Photo courtesy AIR Serenbe.
Resident Anis Mojgani. Photo courtesy AIR Serenbe.


Oh I think residencies are great,” says incoming artist Mojgani. “It gives one the opportunity to get out of one’s day-to-day life, which provides the feasible time to actually work on some creative endeavors that one may not have had the time for. But also, and I think maybe more importantly, this period of newness can provide a lot of inspiration for one’s art while also giving one the permission to try different things one might not have before, to take a different path through the woods than one normally takes.”

Residency programs like Headlands, the Studios of Key West and Djerassi accept most of their artists through general guidelines, and selected artists are curated together. The collaborations that happen naturally in these diverse groups are just as interesting as the work produced by the individual artists.

Photo from Djerrassi Resident Artists Program. Photo courtesy Matthew Terrell.
Photo from Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Photo courtesy Matthew Terrell.

This sort of cross-pollination between artists is one of the unexpected perks of a residency, and something Serenbe hopes will happen as their program matures. As Margot Knight, executive director of Djerassi, explains it, her organization puts artists together with the hopes of collaboration: “We believe that the most successful residencies are those with the most diverse residents. We curate panels’ highest-ranked artists in seven different disciplines with an eye towards genre, age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality and aesthetic. Having said that, I can imagine some wonderful outcomes from discipline-specific residencies.” 

Of course, Serenbe’s discipline-specific, directly funded model may come with some hindrances. Such an intensely focused residency may limit the pool of applicants, thus lowering the range of voices it draws in. Thusly, the quality of applicants may lower simply because the focus is so narrow. More general selection processes give the program itself the ability to discover what kind of arts the community may want; rather than the community choosing first.

Preceding a dinner with AIR Leslie Iwaie. Photo courtesy AIR Serenbe and J Ashley
Preceding a dinner with AIR Leslie Iwai. Photo courtesy AIR Serenbe and J Ashley.

Then, of course, there’s the risk of the “fishbowl effect” — artists’ exposure to the community obstructing their artistic production. In order for this model to succeed, clear boundaries need to be set for both the artists and the community. A great precedent for this has been set by Atlantic Center for the Arts, which has a huge artist compound with studios, living space and a public gallery; but with plenty of areas marked “artists only beyond this point” to delineate the sacred space for creative activity. 

The young program, along with its namesake contemporary urban village, seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. The development energy in Southwest Fulton County (or, at least this enclave) is palpable, and paying off for the arts. Property sales, even in the future when houses are resold, always include a percentage to go to support the arts in the community. According to the charter of Serenbe, home buyers must donate 1 percent of the purchase price of their home to the community art fund. This is in addition to what they paid for the home, and is in perpetuity for every time a home is sold. Land sales in Serenbe require a 3 percent donation to the arts fund. Essentially, the entire community is “bought in” to the arts, which is why they have Serenbe Playhouse, AIR Serenbe and the Art Farm perched in mere spitting distance from the bucolic town. With luck, this ambitious vision and development energy will serve as a new paradigm for the arts in the South.

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