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The Virginia Center for the Arts: Virginia’s Arcadian Artists’ Retreat

If you’re one of the cognoscenti of the fields of arts and letters you’ve probably heard of the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, Yaddo in Sarasota Springs, or even The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Italy, but like many Virginians you may not realize that one of the nation’s foremost artist residency programs is located right here in Central Virginia. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in Amherst County, Virginia, provides highly sought after residential fellowships for writers, visual artists, composers, performance artists and filmmakers.

Founded in 1971 in Charlottesville, by the writers Elizabeth Coles Langhorne (of the famed Langhorne family) and Nancy Hale who wanted to establish a retreat for artists where creative endeavors could unfold freely in a nurturing environment, the VCCA’s original board members also included the novelist Peter Taylor and the former director of the MacDowell Colony, George Kendall.

After five years in Albemarle County, first at Wavertree Hall and then Prospect Hill, VCCA moved to its current location which is leased from Sweet Briar College. Though its setting at Mt. San Angelo, a 450 acre estate 15 miles north of Lynchburg might suggest a sleepy, out-of the-loop organization, nothing could be further from the truth. Year round, VCCA buzzes with the activity of 22 artists in residencies that last anywhere from two weeks to two months. And, these are not just any artists; VCCA fellows have won an impressive number of prestigious awards including Pulitzer Prizes, Rome Prizes, National Book Awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

Past VCCA fellows include Beth Nielsen Chapman, Nashville recording artist and songwriter whose hits include Faith Hill's This Kiss. Her songs have been recorded by Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, Trisha Yearwood, Lorrie Morgan, Ute Lemper and Bonnie Raitt; Alice McDermott winner of the 1998 National Book Award for Charming Billy (begun at the VCCA). McDermott’s second novel, That Night, was nominated for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her third, At Weddings and Wakes, was a New York Times bestseller and also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Charlottesville's own John Casey who won the National Book Award in 1989 for Spartina; Ha Jin the 1999 National Book Award winner for his novel Waiting; Faith McNulty whose book, The Burning Bed, about a battered wife, was made into a highly regarded television movie starring Farrah Fawcett, and screenwriter Coleman Hough who wrote the screenplay for the film Full Frontal directed by Steven Soderbergh. VCCA Fellows have gone on to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and have seen their work premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lincoln Center. South Carolina, Wisconsin and West Virginia all number among their poet laureates VCCA fellows.

VCCA is located directly across Route 29 from Sweet Briar College. Passing through the VCCA gates, one has an immediate sensation of entering a world apart. It all looks different. While some might say it is slightly overgrown and shaggy, others appreciate the fact that it looks the way the country used to before the advent of sleek sub-divisions and manicured corporate campuses. This sense of being in a magical place is clearly a universal reaction: a sign visible as one exits the center reads, “The Real World” indicating those regions lying beyond VCCA’s borders.

VCCA fellow, Anne LeClaire eloquently describes her impressions upon arriving at Mt. San Angelo. “When I drove up I saw Lorca’s sculptures and that wonderful drive and I had this sense I’d come home and it was a very profound and real, deep feeling that comes to me every time I go back. I’ve come home.”

On an early summer day, with its burgeoning hedgerows lining 29 and verdant kudzu-draped trees, it is clear that, landscaping economies aside, this setting is kept intentionally natural. Here, the basic level of nature is appreciated for the inspiration and sustenance it provides the creative process and nature’s very fecundity is paralleled in the productivity of the VCCA fellows. 

After crossing a cattle grate and driving past a sign that reads “Cows and Cars Share the Road,” one continues up a narrow and pitted concrete track that hairpins the hill. A visitor can almost feel his inner clock slow as his car climbs up to Mt. San Angelo and he can begin to appreciate what a rare and wonderful gift such a setting gives artists seeking an escape from the hubbub of everyday life.

On the summit, surrounded by glorious mountain vistas on all sides, the tall meadow grass gives way to mowed expanses and ancient boxwoods—one of the reminders that a grand Italianate house once stood here. Unfortunately, the house burned to the ground in 1979 while undergoing renovations. It has been replaced by an architecturally undistinguished, but airy and comfortable brick residency hall. Here and there, sculptures created by past fellows and selected by a sculpture committee dot the landscape.

Artist residencies offer an invaluable service to artists. In fact, artist residencies offer one of the only sources of support remaining for visual artists now that the NEA no longer funds them. Space and time are two commodities vital to the creative process. Many talented artists don’t have the resources for independent studio space, let alone the luxury of focusing all their attention on their art. In most cases, artists and writers need ancillary jobs to support themselves and, like all of us, they also must attend to the myriad chores of daily living. In the self-imposed solitude of artist residency programs, artists can step out of the everyday world and focus all their energies on their creative output. As a result, time spent at a residency program can be an incredibly productive time for an artist. Visual artist, Sarah McEneaney says, “What I get from this, from being here a month will continue to feed me when I go back home…the energy, the people I’ve met, the work I’ve done—just the time spent thinking, working, living here. It’s going to keep on sustaining me for sometime.”

As McEneaney implies, social interaction is another important aspect of artist residencies, which by their very nature bring together artists—many of whose paths might not otherwise cross. For artists the very process of exchanging ideas and perspectives from different disciplines and different cultural and social boundaries is an inspiring and enriching experience. In the deeply creative and supportive environment of a residency program where time and relationships are intensified, these encounters can be profound, forging bonds that result in artistic collaborations, friendships and professional relationships that endure over the years and across international borders.

VCCA attracts artists at all levels, from the renowned, working at the top of their game, to talented younger artists at the beginning of their professional careers. The combination makes for a particularly lively mix. Fellows routinely speak of the powerful energy level that permeates Mt. San Angelo. Surrounded by a group of such highly-productive, like-minded people all focusing on their work, the atmosphere is a heady charge that is profoundly stimulating. Writer and NPR commentator, Katie Davis says, “Every time I’ve come here I’ve come away with a handful of very completed works. I feel like ideas are just bursting out of me. So much work that it would take me under normal circumstances about a year to do. It’s something that when I’m not here I dream about. I have a picture of this little studio—it’s called the corn crib. I have it right next to my computer in my office and I am oriented towards it all year long.”

Each residency includes a private bedroom, three meals a day, and an individual studio. The writer Lewis Nordan puts it succinctly. “What VCCA promises to do is give me a comfortable, clean studio, a comfortable clean room, three wonderful meals and all the quiet time I need to be the writer that I bring with me from my whole past and whole talent …and that’s a huge gift.”

The staff tries to schedule the sessions so they are composed half of returning fellows and half of newcomers. This is a challenge since the individual residencies vary in length. The fact that so many fellows do return again and again is a clear indication of the appeal of VCCA residencies. Some, referred to as “frequent flyers” by the staff, return as many as 20 times. It’s not all hardcore esoteric work, though a lot of the social aspects do revolve around such activities as readings, performances or open studios, there are also Scrabble and ping-pong tournaments and a longstanding tradition of Friday night poker games.

The fellows’ studios are located in a handsome Norman-style dairy barn built in the 1930s that is a short walk from the residency hall. Well-lit and spacious, each studio has a single bed. There is a darkroom available for the use of photographers and each composer’s studio comes equipped with a piano.. While breakfast and dinner are served in the residency’s dining room and have set times, the midday meal is served buffet-style in the barn’s kitchen. One can eat lunch with the group or take food back to one's studio. Because people have different work schedules—visual artists are generally up early to take advantage of the light; musicians and writers tend to work late and sleep in—the idea is for the fellows to set their own cycles, or as the executive director, Suny Monk says, to leave the “ought tos” at home.

Fellows are asked to contribute $30 a day toward the actual cost of $120 a day. Monk feels this is a good idea—even if she could wave a magic wand and eliminate the need for this contribution, she would still like to request something nominal so that people feel invested in the experience.

The amiable and very capable Monk clearly revels in her position as VCCA’s executive director. Her style combines the best of old world graciousness with a laid back, relaxed attitude. When she talks about the fellows and the various programs that VCCA has undertaken she becomes especially animated and her brown eyes sparkle with delight. A ceramicist who taught studio art for many years in the Richmond City Schools, she cut her administrative teeth as head of the Aylett Country Day School, (a rural school with a very strong arts education program), which she led for 15 years.

“They’re so many people that are enthusiastic about the presentation phase of artistic life,” Monk says, “They go to every opening, they are subscribers to the symphony, they love the opera, they read voraciously. But they may not think what it took to get the words to the page or the actors onto the stage. We are that often overlooked creative phase of the cycle—the quiet phase. Sometimes I even think of it as invisible. Our mission is to create spaces for artists and writers, filmmakers, composers and dancers to become invisible to completely focus on their work.”

Since its founding, over 3,000 artists have come to the VCCA from six continents and 58 countries. During the same period, VCCA has sent nearly 100 artists abroad. This international exchange tradition stretches back to VCCA’s earliest days in the mid-70s. Beginning with fellows from England and Canada who came to the center’s original location at Prospect Hill, the program really gained steam in 1988 when in honor of Israel’s 40th anniversary the Virginia-Israel Commission underwrote residencies to support five Israeli artists. Since then, the international programs have continued to expand. Artists have come from Mozambique, Haiti, Uruguay, Zaire, France, Poland, South Africa, Bolivia and Zimbabwe.

Formal exchanges with similar programs in Germany, Ireland, England and Russia where American artists are sent abroad while their international counterparts come to Mt. San Angelo were established under the tenure of Bill Smart who was director of VCCA from 1978 to 1996. Other exchanges have been created in recent years with organizations in Austria, France, Malta and Argentina. In 1991 the Soviet Writer’s Union in a show of gratitude and respect presented VCCA with a bench from Peredelkino, the Russian writer’s retreat. The bench assumes a place of honor in the center’s newly restored garden.

In December 2004 the VCCA acquired the Moulin à Nef, a two-acre facility in the village of Auvillar in the South of France. The property, which includes two 17th century buildings, was donated to the VCCA by the Donnell-Kay Foundation of Denver, Colorado, which had operated Moulin à Nef for over a decade.

VCCA will continue to administer the facility in much the same way as it had been run under the aegis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, offering space to artists and facilitating cultural exchanges, sponsored performances and other community events. VCCA fellows will continue this interaction with the village of Auvillar while in residence. The Moulin à Nef’s completely modernized studio building offers a state-of-the-art ceramics studio and other areas that can function as individual studios, classrooms and exhibition spaces. Month-long residencies for four artists will be scheduled two or three times per year and during the remaining months the Moulin à Nef’s studios will be rented to university classes and museums as well as other suitable groups. 

2004 also saw the initiation of the VCCA Award for Excellence in the Arts, which is given annually to a prominent writer, visual artist or composer whose significant achievement in the arts is widely recognized and who has not previously been a VCCA fellow. The award includes a paid one-month residency, honorarium and travel stipend.

Financial support is always a challenge for an organization like VCCA. Not long ago the center came up with a formula which took the number of fellows times the number of days resulting in the figure of 7,500 artist days in any given year, or as Monk likes to see it “7,500 opportunities for something wonderful to happen.” When Monk started in 1997, there were only 14 funded days (in other words, only one two-week fully funded residency was funded by an individual donor). This figure has since grown to 1,350 funded days, over 600 of these are fully funded by individuals or organizations; approximately 700 receive partial support from foundations.

To ensure its continued financial security, creative ways to appeal to donors are constantly being explored and developed. One such tool, the “Fund a Fellow” residency, which relies on the traditional patron/artist model, puts a personal face on both donor and recipient. After donating $3,200 (the cost of a fully-funded one-month residency) a donor is assigned to a particular artist—possibly a writer working on a first novel, a composer revising a symphony, or a visual artist embarking on a new set of drawings in an experimental medium. The donation provides the opportunity for the patron to visit with the fellow over dinner at VCCA, and engenders a particularly tangible connection to the artistic process.

While it seems that Monk is satisfied with the bare bones approach of VCCA, substance rather than superficial window dressing is what is important here, Monk does say that $10 million would be a transforming gift. Ideally, she would like to see better accommodations for performance artists and groups, which at this point get rather short shrift. There is an expansive central area in the barn that could be a wonderful practice/performance area, but it doesn’t have a sprung floor and fellows who are choreographers/dancers presently use Sweet Briar’s dance studio.

But most important to Monk is the fact that financial security means freedom. With fundraising demands removed, the staff would be free to approach the service VCCA provides from an intellectual standpoint. In addition to focusing more energy on outreach and foreign exchanges, Monk aspires for VCCA to be a vital force for cultural advocacy. “In the last several years we’ve been recognized as a real voice not just in Virginia, but internationally. We’ve garnered a number of honors…we’re ready to support not just individual artists, but to step forward for the arts in our time.”

While VCCA may not have the same high horizon as other similar organizations, it is in its own modest way already significantly helping move our national contemporary culture along by supporting so many artists on a grassroots level. And that is something that all Virginians should take great pride it.

Virginia Living 4.1 (2005): 102