Arts Residency Programs: The Secret Engine of the Bay Area Arts Scene

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Pamela Z premieres "Memory Trace" at Royce Gallery July 31-Aug. 2 (Photo: Lori Eanes)

The Bay Area can be an unforgiving place for artists. As skyrocketing property values and rents displace countless denizens of the creative class, the implacable vortex of development continues to devour studio and rehearsal spaces. If there’s a silver lining to the storm that’s reconfiguring the Bay Area arts scene, it can be found emanating from a triumvirate of artist residencies that serve as the secret engine driving Northern California creativity.

Set in some of the region’s most striking landscapes, Marin’s Headlands Center for the Arts, Woodside’s remote Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the Silicon Valley-adjacent Montalvo Arts Center in the foothills of Saratoga, serve as refuge and muse, laboratory and proving ground. While providing the solitude that’s so difficult to find in daily life, these distinct programs create myriad opportunities for Bay Area artists to connect with far-flung peers as well as with scientists and researchers. And in so doing, they facilitate alliances between people whose paths might not otherwise cross.

Bay Area focus

Though the programs are international in scope, many a Bay Area artist has done two or even all three of the residencies. Some of the region’s iconic public art is directly tied to the programs. Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn’s “Language of the Birds,” a sculptural installation by City Lights bookstore in North Beach featuring flying books, was inspired by the swallows that roost in Djerassi’s Artists’ Barn -- a cattle barn converted into studio space on the bucolic property.

“Everything here is focused on the artists,” Djerassi executive director Margot Knight says. “About 25 percent of the artists in our residencies come from the Bay Area, which is our largest applicant pool. It’s not just proximity. The Bay Area is filled with spectacular artists.”


It’s striking how often work incubated at one or more of the residencies ends up on stages, walls, publications, and galleries in the Bay Area and far beyond. Composer and vocalist Pamela Z’s new solo multimedia performance, Memory Trace, which premieres at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco on Friday July 31, incorporates elements gleaned during her stays at both Montalvo and Djerassi. The immersive work includes video imagery captured on the wooded paths that crisscross Montalvo and latticed audio snippets from interviews with fellow Djerassi artists.

Protected space

The residency programs are united in their objective to provide artists with quiet space to be creative, away from the pressures of everyday life.

“Getting away from distractions really makes a difference,” says Z. “It’s psychological. Now everybody’s got a phone, but at a lot of sites there’s no signal. And even though you’ve got Internet and can Skype and there’s email to contend with, you can say ‘I’m on a residency’ and cordon yourself off a little bit. You’re not in your own space surrounded by your own stuff. The only reason you’re there is to do work, so you set yourself up and there’s nothing else around to distract you.”

Protecting the solitude of the studio and maintaining financial stability can sometimes work at cross purposes. Several artists interviewed for this story mentioned that some residencies make invasive demands, like meeting donors and holding open studios. At Djerassi, which is protective of the resident artists' privacy, the lack of public access has come with its own cost.

“Philosophically and geographically that kind of access isn’t an option,” Knight says. “I fully support the idea that artists can fix the economy,  revitalize downtowns, and fix social problems. We lost Irvine Foundation grant funding because we don’t do that kind of community engagement. It’s definitely hurt our fundraising, but if artists can’t nourish themselves, how can they nourish the world?”

On public view

Artists cycle in and out of Headlands and Montalvo on their own schedule. As the most sequestered, Djerassi offers only one public event a year.  Most of the time the residencies unfold out of view. But this is the season when the big three open their doors to the public. Headlands holds its summer open house on Sunday July 26, offering a peek at the work of some four dozen current and former artists in residence, including Oakland choreographer Nicole Klaymoon and New York photographer-sculptor Leslie Hewitt.

Montalvo celebrates the 75 th anniversary of its artists residency program—the longest running west of the Mississippi-- with Rock the Garden, an evening of installations and performances by a disparate cast of program alumni. Choreographer and Zaccho Dance Theatre artistic director Joanna Haigood premieres three new site-specific works, and performance artist Hirokazu Kosaka presents a large scale sculptural and performance installation with butoh master Oguri and harmonica player Tetsuya Nakamura.

Joanna Haigood presents site-specific works at Rock the Garden
Joanna Haigood presents site-specific works at Rock the Garden (Lois Greenfield)

Each residency program is shaped by its own particular history and landscape. Built on a decommissioned military base, Headlands has deeply engaged artists in reclaiming historic buildings, essentially turning the rough-hewn campus itself into an ongoing art project since it incorporated on National Park Service land in 1982. Meanwhile, the charged dialogue between arts and science that characterizes Djerassi is woven into its DNA. The late Carl Djerassi, a Stanford University chemistry professor who worked as part of the team that developed the birth control pill, created the program in 1979.

The Montalvo Arts Center evolved out the estate built by Senator James D. Phelan (1861-1930), who bequeathed the property to the San Francisco Art Association, “to be used as far as possible for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students.” When the first crop of artists arrived in 1939, Montalvo was one of only three residency programs in the United States. In 2013, Montalvo made its most concerted effort to integrate the local scene with its first open application for California-based artists.

Real Vocal String Quartet performs at Rock the Garden
Real Vocal String Quartet performs at Rock the Garden (Lenny Gonzalez)

“We’re a 175-acre public park, and we have the opportunity for artists to engage with our visitors," Montalvo director of programs Kelly Sicat says. "We’re testing out new models of engaging audiences in participatory works. It’s a very interesting challenge. How you introduce people to concepts of art that don’t come as traditional painting or composition.”

Breaking bread

While each residency has its own distinct culture and identity, all three bring artists together in the evening to share meals. The idea isn’t only to nourish and inspire the resident artists, it’s also to draw people out of their studios and get them talking among themselves.

“We all would show up at the table at seven and be provided with a beautiful meal that was art in itself,” says Pamela Z, recalling the after-dinner atmosphere at Djerassi. “A handful of us would hang out after dinner and drink more wine and play board games every night."

According to Z, being a resident at the Djerassi program is a bit like being a member of a family because batches of artists arrive and leave on the same days and are resident together for an entire month. "You become attached like a family, down to the dysfunction, with little fights and arguments. You know people’s quirks, and get into a rhythm of being around certain people.”

Hirokazu Kosaka presents a performance installation at Montalvo's Rock the Garden
Hirokazu Kosaka presents a performance installation at Montalvo's Rock the Garden (Moses Hacmon)

Collaborative spirit

Another appealing quality of these programs is their tendency to inspire interesting collaborations between participants.

Sri Lankan-born, Oxford-educated poet and cognitive scientist Pireeni Sundaralingam, an associate professor of writing and consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies, found that dinner conversations at Headlands were so stimulating that they inspired a completely new book project about how various artists approach the idea of landscape via their own disciplinary filters and metaphors. At a Djerassi residency, Sundaralingam was delighted when choreographer Donna Sternberg found inspiration in her poem “Mussels,” and ended up using the verse in a dance piece.

“My sense is they do an incredible job of curating the artists,”  Sundaralingam says. “We all had so much to say to each other. Inevitably local artists are over-represented and they absolutely feed the Bay Area arts scene. I ended up curating my first art show six months after the Headlands residency, a show about urbanscape, architecture and cities, and three quarters of the artists had been at Headlands.”

Spotting talent early

Headlands is also known for taking chances on artists early in their careers, like bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa, who was just figuring out what kind of work she wanted to focus on when she did her first residency in 2006. These days she performs internationally. Her projects include Glorious Ravage, an immersive evening-length song cycle for a large ensemble of California improvisers with films commissioned from Bay Area experimental filmmakers that premieres in the Bay Area on Oct. 1 and 2 at Brava Theater Center. Mezzacappa is also presenting work-in-progress events featuring site-specific improvisations and musical excerpts as part of the Friday Nights at the de Young series on Aug. 7 and 21.

Mezzacappa arrived at Headlands with a reputation as a consummate collaborator, but she hadn’t yet started to define her own body of work. Headlands doesn’t require the delivery of any specific project, so Mezzacappa was able to spend time thinking about larger questions. At the very first dinner, a conversation with Los Angeles visual artist Deborah Aschheim led to a collaboration that thrived for eight years, with their work shown in  galleries all over the country.

“These residencies serve as think tanks and research laboratories,” Mezzacappa says. “So much work is getting cooked up. You might not see it for five years, but one month in one of these place could create an entirely new direction.”