Headlands to End Affiliate Artist Program, Launch Bay Area Fellowships

Building 944 on Headlands Center for the Arts’ lower campus. (Andria Lo)

In the middle of a chaotic and universally terrible year, artist Daniel Southard received the happy news that he had been accepted into Headlands Center for the Arts’ affiliate artist program. It meant at least one more year in Building 960, a former U.S. Army Quartermaster building overlooking the Headlands’ Nike Missile Site, where he enjoyed a studio as a graduate fellow. Or, to be more specific, that he had enjoyed until mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic closed not just the studio, but the entire Marin Headlands.

“I was thrilled to get accepted in the affiliate program and expand my practice in old and new ways over the coming three years,” Southard wrote in an email. “I was also excited about the stability of knowing, at least partially, what these next three years might bring.”

The affiliates, a select group of around 20 artists and writers who pay below-market-rate for studio spaces in Building 960 and 961, have the option to reapply for their positions for up to three years at Headlands. At $1.10 per square foot on top of a $45 base, affiliate spaces are some of the most affordable—and stable—studios in the Bay Area.

It was May when Southard got his acceptance, followed by some communication about picking his next studio space, or maybe keeping his current spot. Then the emails petered out. “Oh, it’s the pandemic,” he remembers thinking. On July 15, affiliate artists were told Building 960 and 961 were reopening; they could begin to sign up for time slots to maintain social distancing.

Building 961, currently home to some affiliate artist studios. (Andria Lo)

Less than a month later, though, on Aug. 10, all the current and future affiliates received the unexpected news that the entire affiliate program would cease to exist at the end of 2020. The arts center, facing an approximate $1 million budget deficit this year, had decided to accelerate plans to consolidate its campus, returning Building 960 and 961 to the National Park Service and sunsetting the program they housed. The final affiliate cohort, including Southard, would be its last.

Collectively, the affiliate artists had a simple statement: “It’s heartbreaking.”

The end of the affiliate program, which has been part of Headlands in some form since 1988, is just one of several big-picture changes the arts organization plans to adopt beginning in January 2021. These decisions, which affect both the nonprofit’s physical campus and the ways in which it serves artists, were sped along by the pandemic but are rooted, program director Sean Uyehara emphasizes, in a five-year master plan approved in 2018. That plan refocuses the organization on its “core campus,” with new programming, according to today’s announcement, which shows Headlands “getting bold by narrowing our focus, going deeper, and, in the process, innovating how we support artists.”

‘Rethinking everything we’re doing’

The coronavirus pandemic has stripped arts nonprofits of earned income opportunities, threatened future funding, led to layoffs and furloughs, halted programming and pretty much turned everything upside down. Headlands Center for the Arts, despite a strong history of fundraising and a growing staff in recent years, is no exception.

Immediate financial losses came in the form of canceled event rentals, which in 2019 had amounted to $260,077, or 5% of the arts center’s earned income and revenue. Suddenly, the calendar was wiped clean, reimbursements needed to be issued, and weddings or corporate retreats were out of the question for the foreseeable future.

2020 was already set to be a transitional year for the 38-year-old organization, best known outside the region for its highly competitive international residency program. In February, Sharon Maidenberg, Headlands’ executive director, announced she would leave the nonprofit in June, after 10 years in her position. An executive search launched in March, and Andrew Niklaus came on in May as an interim leader.

A view of Headlands Center for the Arts' lower campus buildings. (Tom Ide)

In a normal year, the 20 affiliate artists and 14 graduate fellows would rub elbows with over 40 visiting artists and collectives at Mess Hall dinners, an exchange the affiliate artists describe as mutually beneficial. (Residents are often well-established in their careers, but affiliates have the advantage of local know-how, information they’re happy to share with visitors.)

Spring residents were scheduled to show up in March from as far away as Botswana; Headlands staff made the call to cancel their arrival just days before the Bay Area entered shelter in place. Board member and former affiliate artist Tucker Nichols says it was immediately apparent the organization needed to act quickly to address both near-future budget shortfalls and the long-term economic fallout the pandemic would surely bring about.

Headlands’ annual rent costs are around $174,00 per year; Buildings 960 and 961 represent roughly 21% of that amount. The organization estimates it would cost Headlands a minimum of $462,000—including rent, associated staff time, maintenance and “leasehold improvements”—to operate these buildings, as planned, through 2023.

“I don’t know if I would have done what they did,” Uyehara says of the Headlands’ 25-person board, several of whom are artists. “They gave so much time to us for free and we really needed it.” Together with remaining staff—two full-time employees were laid off, one in July and one in August—the board worked to figure out the organization’s available options. “The pandemic suggested the possibility that Headlands would have to close,” Uyehara says. “We worked for about three months really intensely on just reformulating, and rethinking everything we’re doing.”

Guiding them throughout, he says, was the existing master plan.

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‘We don’t want to go anywhere else’

Part of Headlands’ 2018 master plan specified this exact consolidation of the campus, returning Building 960 and 961 to the Park Service and concentrating on maintaining the “lower” campus: the residences and Buildings 944 and 945. But the master plan outlined that this would happen by 2023, when the affiliate artist program would sunset. Incoming affiliates would be advised about the end of the program one, maybe even two years in advance—so they could know what they were getting into, and when it would all come to a close.

Moving everything up to the end of 2020 means no such gentle transition. “I won’t make this sound like we’re so happy and thrilled about everything,” Nichols says. He speaks wistfully of his own former studio in Building 960. “As an artist on the board, this was extremely painful ... to have to end this program and give up those buildings is painful.”

Nichols adds: “If I had a studio there, I would feel really disappointed. The thing you need most is a place to make your work and a place to retreat to for your sanity.”

The current affiliates agree. To them, today’s announcement reads like a decision made in 2018 that they’re just now hearing about, a decision made without consulting them then—or now. Collectively, the affiliates say their studios are a key part of what enables many of them to stay in the Bay Area, a region so many artists have fled over the years because it’s simply “so much easier to be somewhere else,” they say.

Especially during the pandemic, Headlands has become a place where they can still be together, albeit in more distant ways, going for walks and maintaining a sense of community rooted in place. “Losing this space that allows for us to be here and to work here is really hurtful,” they say. “We don’t want to go away, we don’t want to go anywhere else.”

Headlands Center for the Arts Program Director Sean Uyehara speaking with participants of the Thematic Residency on Palliative Care Futures and Psychedelic Medicines, in January, 2020. (Tom Ide)

Adding to the sense of abandonment are other parts of Headlands’ reformulated plan for 2021: two newly created and generously funded fellowships, one for Bay Area artists, the other for multidisciplinary cohorts. With these new programs, Headlands will work with less artists (Uyehara envisions the Bay Area Fellowship will launch with three artists, but aims to expand it for 8–10), but more deeply and responsively.

Each Bay Area fellow will receive a $15,000 honorarium per year over two years, along with the option for health insurance and an “$8,000 pot” to use towards their material and immaterial fellowship needs, Uyehara says. Applications open January 2021.

The Threshold Fellowship will gather artists and experts to “explore critical issues” in the vein of Headlands’ previous thematic residencies. Three fellows will receive $10,000 each, time and space at Headlands and additional monetary and administrative support to develop programs and activities over the course of a year.

Uyehara describes both fellowships as providing deeper support to artists than past residencies. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, working with fewer people will allow Headlands staff to be more responsive to individual fellows’ needs, to help them craft a program that serves their particular practice in that moment.

Uyehara is aware it’s going to be hard to separate the end of the affiliate program from the launch of the Bay Area fellowship, but stresses they’re two very separate decisions. “It’s really intended to vest and fully express the organization’s intention to become a more equitable institution,” he says of the fellowship. “It’s not intended that that equity would come at the price of the local artists. I don’t think that there’s a way to unhinge those things, but it’s never intended that the new programs would replace the old ones.”

Affiliates point out their current cohort is possibly the most diverse group of artists the program has accepted in recent years—and if equity is the goal, they question why Headlands would dissolve a program that is already successful.

But the real problem, Uyehara says with a sigh, is timing—the affiliates were supposed to have much more lead time to know their program was ending.

Ensuring Futures

In an attempt to cushion the blow of losing their studios, affiliates will be offered six to nine months of free studio space in Headlands’ lower campus buildings over the course of the next few years. The affiliates appreciate this gesture, but they believe their needs are once again not taking priority: their understanding is that their studio time is to be slotted around rescheduled residencies of Bay Area and California artists from the 2020 cohort, which will now take place only in the summer months.

“It’s not the affiliate program,” they say. “There’s no kind of support, programs, or explanation of how we will be presented. It’s just studio space.”

Meanwhile, Headlands is still negotiating with the Park Service to secure a long-term lease on the lower campus buildings. Buildings 960 and 961 may facilitate that process. “Part of what makes dealing with the Park easier is the return of the buildings,” Uyehara says.

And while it seems there is little time or room to alter the outcome of today’s announcement, the affiliate artists are committed to doing everything they can to ensure the future of their program. To that end, they’ve over gathered 50 emails of support from former affiliates who credit the program with substantially influencing their professional lives.

For now, the affiliate artists, 13 graduate fellows and two Tournesol awardees are the only artists at Headlands. The affiliate artists find this fact particularly poignant.

“I wish they valued us as much as they say they will value artists of the future,” say the affiliates.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that 15 artists in addition to the affiliates are also currently working at Headlands.

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