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Renowned Artist Residency Program Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Continues to Innovate after 50 Years of Success

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

Art, in its many forms, tends to be perceived as a product rather than a process. When you see a painting in a gallery or a book on a shelf, you are presented with a polished result of a great deal of time and effort expended by that particular creator. At Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, however, the creative process—in all its unrefined and hard-won glory—is given the spotlight. For just over 50 years, VCCA has provided artists of multiple disciplines with the time, space, and amenities to fully immerse themselves in their work without specific expectations. Considering the organization’s recent and upcoming developments, its next 50 years are sure to be even more remarkable.

VCCA’s story began in the late 1960s when two Virginia-based authors, Elizabeth Coles Langhorne and Nancy Hale, agreed that Virginia should have its own artist residency program. The program started as a couple of homes and a farm in Charlottesville, and the first artists were welcomed in 1971. In 1978, the program moved to Amherst thanks largely to the efforts of William Smart, an English professor at Sweet Briar College. To this day, VCCA resides on the picturesque 410-acre Mt. San Angelo estate across the highway from Sweet Briar.

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

VCCA, whose alumni include Beth Macy—author of Dopesick, which has now been turned into a Hulu miniseries—and Charlottesville-based author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, offers fellowships for writers, visual artists, and composers at all stages in their artistic careers. Applications are accepted three times per year and are peer-reviewed by other artists within the same discipline.

“The most important part of the application is a work sample,” said Kim Doty, VCCA’s Director of Communications. “The panel carefully considers the quality and promise of the work before making their recommendations, and we try to schedule as many people as we can. We have three four-month residency seasons: winter, summer, and fall. Historically, summer tends to be a little more competitive due to many people being on an academic schedule. Within each scheduling period, people come for various lengths of time. We really want to make sure that people can come for a length of time that works with their lives.”

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

Since its inception, VCCA has remained committed to providing fellows with a balanced environment that allows them to focus on their work while also forging meaningful connections.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re cultivating a welcoming, supportive, and nurturing atmosphere where artists of all kinds can come and be themselves and get the support they need to move their work forward,” Doty noted. “Our missions of time, space, and a sense of community have been very constant.”

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

On a basic level, that sense of community derives from artists’ shared awareness of daily life’s abiding ability to thwart the creative process.

“Few people acknowledge the amount of effort and time that goes into creating art,” Doty remarked. “Our day-to-day lives don’t make it easy to carve out that time and space. VCCA and other art residency programs are places where you can be among other artists—the people who understand the struggle personally.”

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

Opportunities for deeper connections are also plentiful at VCCA. For instance, after residents enjoy dinner together, writers in the group will often host optional and informal readings of their work around the fireplace.

“There are these chances for people to come together and start a collaboration, form a friendship, or simply gain new understandings about how to solve a creative problem,” said Doty. “A writer can have a conversation with a painter and, even though their work may seem to involve totally disparate processes, there’s just something about a different creative approach that can change the way you think about something.”

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

Of course, solitude is also an essential part of the creative process. Each resident enjoys a private bedroom and bathroom, and plentiful studio spaces are available for use.

Fellows also receive three meals per day provided by renowned catering service Meriwether Godsey.

“We used to try to manage an in-house kitchen staff, but that was sort of an ongoing struggle,” Doty noted. “Then we partnered with Meriwether Godsey, and they are just fantastic. The residents rave about the food and feel like they’re getting healthy, nourishing, and delicious meals every day. Food that is good and lovingly prepared really makes a difference.”

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

In addition to improved dining services, several updates and serendipitous occurrences have helped VCCA become the celebrated residency program it is today.

In 2004, a foundation in Denver, Colorado, sent out a flyer indicating that it was looking to give away a lovely property called Le Moulin à Nef in the village of Auvillar, France. As luck would have it, Sheila Gulley Pleasants, VCCA’s Director of Artist Services, is fluent in French. VCCA acquired the property and started a residency program in France. Once artists have had a residency in Virginia, they are eligible to apply to the program in France, which hosts four artists at a time. Additional international programs have since been established in Germany and Austria.

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

In 2020, a once-in-a-lifetime gift helped VCCA realize its long-standing dream of purchasing the Mt. San Angelo estate.

“When we learned that Sweet Briar would be willing to entertain our offer to buy the property, a longtime board member of ours [Cynthia Tremblay] was ready to help,” Doty recalled. “She owned this Georgia O’Keeffe painting, entitled Blue Sand, and when she learned that there was a buyer interested in purchasing it, she very generously donated the painting to VCCA so that we could sell it and use the money to help purchase the property. It feels very poetic that the gift of this painting will ensure that we have this home for artists.”

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

Although VCCA was saddened to halt the program for 15 months due to the pandemic, the organization completed several significant renovations during that time: the Studio Barn and other public rooms were upgraded and refurnished, each bedroom received its own private bath, all bedrooms and studios received independently controlled HVAC units, and the 1930s pool that had fallen into disrepair was restored. The organization also hopes to improve ADA accessibility in the near future.

Additionally, and even more importantly, VCCA recently hired its first outreach manager and established its 50th Anniversary Fund, which is specifically designated to give 50 artists of color who are new to VCCA a free two-week residency.

“We’ve always had diversity in terms of artistic disciplines, ages, and phases of people’s careers,” remarked Doty. “Now, we’re working hard to make sure that the demographics of the artists who are coming more closely reflect those of the U.S. population.”

Photo courtesy of Paige Critcher

VCCA currently has a pay-as-you-can model in which the organization’s Annual Fund covers at least 50% of the cost of all artist residences and an endowment provides more than $150,000 annually in financial aid. A variety of fully funded fellowships, which are endowed by individual donors or sponsored by grants or foundations, are also available. Ultimately, VCCA hopes to eliminate all fees for artists.

As VCCA continues to innovate and improve its residency program, its primary mission of facilitating and honoring the creative process without agenda will undoubtedly remain unchanged.

“It’s a very unpretentious and welcoming place, and there are no expectations or obligations,” Doty said. “We want people to be able to come and just pursue what they want to pursue. We’re trusting them to come and hopefully take their work to unexpected places.”

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