The Shandaken Project, Artist Residency

8.26.14 Shandaken, NY

"The most responsible way to understand cultural and aesthetic production is to recognize that if you support the entire breadth of human experience — the process — you end up supporting the product."  — Nicholas Weist

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne

We talk with Nicholas Weist, the founder of The Shandaken Project.

UD:  So how did you end up creating an artist's residency up here in New York?

NW:  In the wake of 2008, I had a good deal of questions about the purpose of a nonprofit art organization. It became clear to me during the “financial crisis” that most medium- and large-scale American nonprofits had become drastically corporatized —because if they survived, they did not contract as I had expected them to, but expanded instead.   

I want to be clear that I don’t think that art institutions being corporatized is inherently negative. No one can argue that our current model hasn't been an extremely powerful one, and enabled artists to produce important, and even sometimes experimental work. But these institutions, partly because they rely on funds from the very wealthy, maintain a corporatized focus on growth, acquisition (of things, capital, or cultural capital), and observable yields to their cultural production. My interest is in nonprofits that operate with a logic entirely distinct from corporations and their ideas. So I developed the program that became Shandaken with a focus on fundraising from a peer group of artists and creative professionals instead of high net worth individuals. Because of our successes in this area, we can emphasize anti-corporate values like interiority, ephemerality, and intangible yields.  

And so, in 2011, I was doing a little bit of work in the Ulster County area, and I met a man who had been an assessor for the county. He was a friend of the gentleman who owns this property, whom I was introduced to and with whom I negotiated a long-term lease. Although I felt that my ideas should probably gestate for a few years to come to a basic level of fruition, when I saw this property I realized that I had been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to site an organization on such stunning grounds. So I jumped at it and founded the project in the fall of that year. By summer 2012, we had had our first residency season.  

One of the artist studios at The Shandaken Project

UD:  Sometimes it's good when things happen so fast, you don't have time to think....

NW:  Yes!  I definitely did not have time to think, but it worked out okay.  

UD:  Tell me a little bit about your set up here.

NW:  Sure. We host three residents at a time on our 250-acre campus, which is on a private mountaintop in the town of Shandaken. It’s a truly special property, because it’s ringed on all sides by State land with no other houses in sight. This makes it feel remote, while in reality it’s very near key amenities. The residents share a house and each have an individual studio. Although there is no structured schedule, most days they will prepare dinner together and share the meal. The studios are sited deep in the woods at a considerable distance from the house and each other, so working in them is a totally private experience. Each building has one side that opens completely, so residents can have a nearly plain-air experience while working inside of the building. We maintain a 3/4-acre vegetable garden that the residents are invited to participate in and harvest from.

Nicholas Weist, founder of The Shandaken Project

UD:  As a writer and a curator, what do you get out of running or establishing this residency? 

NW:  I think that it's a human being’s responsibility to contribute to an area of interest in the best way that one possibly can. I made the choice early on to deploy my skills in support of producers of culture. Writing about art, curating (I prefer the term “organizing”), and operating an institution are all examples of working in support of artists in different ways. I think a residency model is the most important means by which institutions can support working artists and other producers of culture because residencies create a scenario in which artists have a safe space to take risks. Big risks produce big successes in the evolution of culture.

The property's pond

UD:  How do you fund a project like this?                                                                                

NW:  Our funding is a mixture of contributions from a peer group of creative professionals, a little bit of foundation giving, and a little bit of earned income. The membership program that we run is supported through an edition program. I commission two limited editions each year from artists who are friends of the project.

UD:  So what is unique about this project compared to other residencies?

NW:  Well, what makes Shandaken Project special is that we have an extraordinarily strong community behind the project. The heart of the project is really in the network that supports it and the affiliations that it creates. Although we have had residents from Scandinavia, from Australia, from Los Angeles, they are also all connected to the larger community through professional ties.   

Colby Bird, Artist-in-Residence

UD:  What is it that you're looking for? 

NW:  Of specific interest to the residency are artists who work in an interdisciplinary capacity or an “intermedia” capacity. My usage is a drastic misreading of the original term, but I needed a category separate from “interdisciplinary,” which can describe anything from a post-studio practice to someone who makes “and/or” work, like painting and sculpture. I use intermedia to loosely describe work that cannot be incorporated into institutional frameworks. Sometimes that’s because this work is anti-formal, operating between categories, or sometimes it antagonizes those categories themselves.

Take for instance, an artist who produces a book that they consider a sculpture. That artwork can face some basic operational problems within an institution. For instance, would it be proposed for purchase in a museum by the librarian or an acquisitions committee? And sometimes the answer to that question is No and No instead of Yes or Yes. And so, we work to identify artists that who are at risk of minimal institutional support by virtue of their approach. Of course, we also welcome artists who have more classic approaches to disciplinary categories.

A glimpse of the library

UD:  There are also people who have this idea, "Yes, I would love to do a residency", but in the end they are not that serious.  Or maybe they try to take advantage of the situation?

NW:  I think it's a mischaracterization to identify leisure as an unnecessary part of a creative practice. One of my favorite applications that we received for the residency is from an artist I knew personally, so I knew that he was a very serious producer and a very smart person. And basically his application said, "I've been in school for six years..." He had four degrees or however many it was, and he said that he had read so much his brain was mush, and his eyeballs were falling out of his head. He wanted to come and look at the clouds for two weeks. And yes, I think that looking at the clouds and doing nothing else is a totally valid way to utilize the opportunity we offer at the Shandaken Project. The most responsible way to understand cultural and aesthetic production is to recognize that if you support the entire breadth of human experience — the process — you end up supporting the product.  

Lizzie Feidelson, Artist-in-Residence

UD:  What's next for the project? 

NW:  Our primary interest is in growing deeper, not wider. We are strengthening our core infrastructure and making sure that the quality of the experience that we offer our residents gets better and better. 

Weist at work on the main house porch.

UD:  How can somebody support a project like this? 

NW:  Well, the first step is to visit the website. There is a lot of great information there about our philosophies and how we care for our residents. The membership program I mentioned comes with the thank you gift of two commissioned editions. We work with phenomenal artists (like Margaret Lee and Denise Kupferschmidt for instance), and this year’s editions will be no exception. Membership dues are a very reasonable amount of money, and most people choose to spread their annual commitment out into monthly giving, so it becomes an extraordinarily tiny amount of money! Our members are our most important supporters, so I hope that if someone is interested to support the Shandaken Project, he or she will become one.