Three years ago, art-lover and self-proclaimed “veteran administrator” Nick Weist turned a 250-acre estate in the rural Catskill mountains of upstate New York, into an artist’s paradise. He called it the Shandaken Project. The residency—two to six weeks of free room and board and a spacious studio in the rural countryside, complete with access to a communal vegetable garden—gives process-based visual artists, dancers, writers, curators, scholars, and musicians a place to explore.
Tonight the Shandaken Project celebrates three years in an exhibition featuring over 60 artists who are “part of the Shandaken community,” says Weist—from Peter Nadin to Brie Ruais—in a disused apartment in the East Village, a far cry from the woodsy mountain retreat. Supported by Creative Time, the exhibition brings the country spirit to the big city. I spoke with Weist about the inception of Shandaken Project—what Weist jokes a supporter recently called, “the most important residency program you’ve never heard of”—its evolution, and his reflection on the last three years of this growing residency.
Can you tell me about the inception of the Shandaken Project—why and how you decided to develop this residency program? What was missing that you hoped this would fill or supplement?
I started the program in late 2011, after working for many years for small or nonprofit institutions in the art world. In the past, organizations of this scale were often artist-run or self-described as “alternative.” These filled an important function in the ecosystem of art: they were better positioned to incur risk because their stakes were lower, they could be informal and flexible enough to be led by artists instead of other priorities, and so on. In our current moment, smaller institutions are going head-to-head with large museums, corporations, and even governments in the production and sale of cultural capital. In so doing, they enter an already-crowded arena and leave a hole where sorely needed resources should be for younger or less popularly legible artists. I hope that the Shandaken Project will remain a small-scale organization, and continue to provide direct support to cultural producers whose work or methods of working are making important strides in the progress of culture while not receiving wide attention.
How is the residency structured?
We have three residents at a time, and each has their own room in a single, large house. They stay for two to six weeks each, a timeframe that they select themselves. There is one studio per resident—these are small outbuildings about 200 yards from any other structure, scattered throughout the woods. Being in one of the studios is a totally private experience: all you can see when you’re in and around them are fields and forest. The residencies are set up to support process, so we don’t ask for any kind of project proposal or completed work at the end. People tend to come with pretty small toolkits and focus on experiments with new materials or new directions in their work. There are very limited opportunities provided by art institutions to work at something without being goal-oriented, and that goes double for younger artists. We’re proud to offer a safe space for risk and even failure to our residents.
Is there a particular type of artist that has been invited to the residency, or particular types of work that have realized through the residency, potentially as a result of the environment?
I usually describe our residents as “cultural producers” rather than artists, because in addition to being visual artists, many of them also, or even primarily, make music, writing, dance, or other forms of culture. Most institutions approach artists, curators, and the like as specialists in their respective fields, which is how we come to have an art-historical canon and other professionalized frameworks of meaning: valuation based on perceived talent in a particular area. Narratives like “the tortured genius,” the artist “pouring himself onto the canvas,” and other modern myths of creative production reinforce this rubric: the valiant artist sacrifices everything for her Great Works. But this manner of historicizing artwork occludes a constellation of important, parallel endeavors that inform or maybe even yield the objects that are remembered. For instance John Cage’s interest in mycology led him directly to certain musical ideas. He made drawings and sculptural works that were antecedents to well-known sound works, but are almost never exhibited. At the Shandaken Project we honor the entire breadth of cultural and aesthetic production, recognizing that by supporting the process, you end up supporting the product. This is a long way of saying: you never know what sort of work will be made at the residency! A typical experience is a “dancer” having come and made nothing but sculpture.
How have you seen the residency evolve over the past three years since its inception?
There was a ton of energy around the project at its founding, but no one really knew what it would be about. I chose to leave the program and its goals intentionally loose, and instead focus on how the organization itself could be built. I felt that if we built a program with a group of intelligent, critical people at its core, and made investments in organic growth that responded directly to the needs of constituents in real time, we were guaranteed to end up with something great. Now, four years in and with three residency seasons under our belt, all that great energy has coalesced around refined ideas about our anti-corporate organizational structure, our exclusive focus on process, and our interest in a community of cultural producers who, as I spoke about before, cannot be easily described in short-hand. We really came to the latter through years of observation of what happened at the residency, responding to the challenges and desires our residents identified for us.
For the 3-year retrospective, are the artists you're bringing together all Shandaken alumn? Or how was this group chosen?
The artists exhibiting in the retrospective are former residents, as well as those from whom we’ve commissioned public programs and others who have helped to shape the organization by providing critical feedback or guidance. The goal is twofold—to create a snapshot of how a particular community of artists (our alumni and supporters) is working today, and to empower the people who articulated the narrative of the organization to create a new text (the show) emphasizing the idea that “history” is as much about the present as the past. I hope that a lived experience of the retrospective, as a participant or observer, will cultivate a sense of the whole, dynamic organization rather than a nostalgic look backward or attempt to position a particular narrative as its authoritative history.
When did Creative Time get involved and what is their role in the residency, if any?
Creative Time has generously donated the venue for the exhibition. In the near future, it will become an expansion to their office. Since they are currently in the permitting process and do not have a use for the space before it’s renovated, they kindly agreed to let us have the show there. Anne Pasternak is a visionary leader who has provided huge opportunities for artists, and I consider myself very lucky to have her support—but credit for this partnership must be given primarily to their director of operations Cynthia Pringle, who is also on the Shandaken Project board.
Finally, how do you see the Shandaken Project evolving over the next few years?
We’ll have some very big news in January, but I can’t share the details yet! Right now we’re focusing on strengthening our infrastructure and dreaming up new ways of making our residents’ experiences better and better.
Opening Reception: Tonight, December 12, 7 to 10 pm. Live performance by the feminist punk band Penis.
Exhibition runs December 12, 2014 to January 15, 2015, Mondays and Tuesdays, noon to 6pm and by appointment , 59 East 4th Street, 7th Floor. For a complete schedule, visit: http://www.shandakenproject.org/programs.html
All images courtesy of the Shandaken Project.