The Family-Friendly Residency Month Idea

From a letter I sent to Sharon Dynak, president of the Ucross Foundation, in October 2008:

In answer to your question about whether we have any suggestions for improving the program: I do! In the two and a half years since I was there, I’ve become a husband and a father; Emily and I were delighted to welcome Tobias Ezekiel Hopkins into the world on 11 April 2008. So I’d be really excited if Ucross became a residency 1) to which resident artists might bring spouses or significant others, regardless of whether or not they are also artists; and 2) to which resident artists might bring their children.

I don’t think there are that many residencies that allow for the former; I know that Bellagio does (their guidelines state: “Spouses/life partners may accompany the resident, or may apply for a concurrent residency”). Ucross allows for couples “composed of two artists” to “apply individually for concurrent residencies,” obviously, which is wonderful. But I’ve started to think that a residency at the level of a Bellagio or a Ucross in the United States that accommodated non-resident partners would fill a largely unmet need.

The same goes for children: looking at the “Companions Allowed” index in the back of the third edition of the guidebook Artists Communities, there are really very few places that allow artists to bring their kids (limited further, for a writer at the beginning of his or her career, by other restrictions, like the fact that the Civitella Ranieri Foundation doesn’t take applications, Jacob’s Pillow is just dance, etc.).

There are probably two conflicting models here of what a creative residency should be. That is to say, I think that those who feel that a residency should be ascetic, monastic, a retreat from the everyday world would think that families accompanying artists would detract from that ideal for all artists in residence. So perhaps the only way to accomplish this would be to have a “family-friendly” residency month set aside out of each year. I’m also guessing that two big obstacles for these suggestions are simply infrastructure and budget—huge concerns, really. But as a writer who is now both a husband and a dad, I’d be very grateful if you’d consider these ideas.

The more provocative, hyperbolic, and confrontational way to express this idea would be to say that the current value system espoused by most residencies in the United States is hypocritical and anti-feminist. Hypocritical in the sense that it promotes the idea of ascetic withdrawal from the world for the sake of art, yet accomodates behavior at odds with that idea, like people spending much of their time at a residency getting drunk and/or having sexual relations with people who are not their partners (i.e., children aren’t okay, but alcoholism and adultery are). Anti-feminist in the sense that it perpetuates a system devised in and for another world—a world in which “John Cheever used to boast that he had enjoyed sex on every flat surface in the mansion [at Yaddo], not to mention the garden and the fields“—a world in which the (female) spouse of a (male) artist was understood to be merely a helpmeet, staying home and taking care of the kids while the great man went off to Bread Loaf to bang as many of the fawning and easily exploited waiters as he could. Hypocritical and anti-feminist—and this is making the argument in an even more hyperbolic and confrontational way—as if residencies were operating in a Larry Craig “wide stance” value system, an unreconstructed universe of keeping up the appearance of suburban normalcy (wife and kids at home, hard work and sobriety, etc.) while simultaneously engaging in covert behaviors completely at odds with that projected appearance of normalcy.

I personally feel like the provocative, hyperbolic, and confrontational approach is almost always ineffective, though, and that the better approach is to accentuate the positive. From my admittedly limited experience, I’m optimistic that there’s a good chance that family-friendly month would be logistically possible at the best residencies in the U.S. (and by logistically possible, what I mean is that I’m guessing that questions about money and infrastructure—e.g., which dorm or gallery space on the campus should we turn into a child-care facility for a month? for how many hours a day? etc.—would be far easier to answer than it would be to convince a board of directors to allow this). And as I wrote Sharon, it would accomodate what is currently a largely unmet need.

Obviously the best residencies are places where lots of good work can get done, and does get done. I’m not arguing here for a wholesale shift—although some might, I suppose. I’m arguing for one family-friendly month: one-twelfth of the year given over to those who’d like to try this new model; eleven-twelfths for those who like the status quo. I think it’d at least be a worthwhile experiment.

See also.