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A Guide to Unique Art Schools & Residencies

Thinking about applying? Not sure which route to take? Here’s an overview of 7 programs in the United States.

Images: The Whitney Museum -New York, 

Fresco Barn, Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture

Issue 1, 2023-2024

Future doctors are required to learn anatomy and a lot more. Lawyers must have a basic grasp of civil and criminal procedure and prove it by passing a bar exam. For professional artists, the path is less clear. Today, while particular skills and a mastery of perspective may have been essential in some eras, in some places, artists now do anything and everything, from cooking food to social justice work, and attending law school as part of their practice.


Unsurprisingly, then, the academic side of the art world is just as varied. There are prestigious schools that dealers flock to in search of talent, and that offer MFAs at various price points and even Ph Ds to hone thinking and credential would-be teachers. There are also artist-run initiatives and a worldwide constellation of residencies that can serve as luxe getaways or back-to-nature boot camps. As with school programs, some come with generous stipends, others charge hefty fees, and there’s a whole industry around residencies. Every program has different limitations, but it’s a broad and incredible playing field.


Following is a brief overview of that playing field, highlighting some of the residencies and full-on art schools that are on the radar of art types, and for which, if an aspiring artist is in want of formal training or at least of some time to explore their practice, they might consider applying. The competition can be fierce, but the experiences can be transformative. 


Whitney Independent Study Program, New York: Started by New York’s Whitney Museum in 1968, the Independent Study Program (ISP) is a tripartite institution with tracks in critical studies, curatorial work and studio practice. Each year, the latter typically welcomes 15 artists, from undergraduates to MFA holders, for nine months of serious (but grade-free) study with leading artists and scholars. At the ISP’s helm is Ron Clark, a former artist who helped establish the program. He’s made theory the foundation of its curriculum. The alumni list includes Andrea Fraser, Gregg Bordowitz and LaToya Ruby Frazier. Tuition is $1,800, and assistance is available. All in all, a fairly affordable entree into the New York art world. There’s also a bonus incentive for future applicants. The family of Roy Lichtenstein recently donated his Greenwich Village studio to the Whitney, which plans to make it the ISP’s headquarters this year.


Cooper Union, New York: For more than one-hundred years, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offered undergraduates something extremely alluring: zero tuition. That ended in 2014, when the esteemed school of art, architecture and engineering began charging on account of financial difficulties, a move that outraged its faculty, student body and alums. Protests ensued. Still, with an 8-percent acceptance rate for the 2023-24 academic year, Cooper remains an attractive destination for its record of producing major talents, Avery Singer; Firelei Báez; Wangechi Mutu, its internationally renowned professors, Walid Raad; Lucy Raven; Coco Fusco, and its location in Manhattan’s East Village, a short stroll from numerous galleries. Half-tuition scholarships are provided these days, and good news for parents of artsy youngsters who are already desperately socking away cash, the institution’s board said last year that it has been righting its balance sheet and is on track to do away with tuition once more by the end of the decade. The businessman, inventor, and abolitionist Peter Cooper, who established the school in 1859 and believed that “education should be free as air and water,” would no doubt approve.


California Institute of the Arts, Santa Clarita, California: Walt Disney died in 1966, four years before the multidisciplinary school he’d been working to build (following the 1961 merger of the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music) began welcoming students on a new campus just north of Los Angeles. Had he lived just a little longer, he would have seen CalArts, as the school is known, become a hotbed of avant-garde activity in the visual arts, with some early graduates quickly making their names in the buzzing New York art scene of the ’80s. Two of those names are David Salle, and Jack Goldstein, who, along with some of their associates, were christened the “CalArts Mafia.” And the school hasn’t stopped minting stars; recent alums include Kaari Upson and Henry Taylor. The program combines hands-on learning and in-depth discourse: The professors include critically lauded giants like Cauleen Smith, Sam Durant and Charles Gaines.


Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, Maine: Some 350-acres, which are home to lakeside cottages, studios devoted to sculpture and fresco, a multimedia lab, and a more-than-14,000-volume library, are in store for the roughly 65 emerging artists selected for this intensive nine-week summer residency, which was created just after World War II. In 1946, Willard W. Cummings established the program on his family’s farm in Skowhegan, Maine, with his fellow artist Sidney Simon, whom he’d met in the Army’s War Art Unit, and two others. It’s been artist-run ever since. A board names five resident-faculty artists and five visiting-faculty artists each year, and they are joined by various visiting artists, all of whom offer lectures and studio visits. Despite the traditional mediums in Skowhegan’s official title, these practitioners’ specialties run the gamut. The place has been known to have a hold on people. 


The Fabric Workshop and Museum Artists in Residence, Philadelphia: Artists looking to push their practice and create something strange and new have experts ready to assist them through the artist residency run by Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop, which has specialized in producing and exhibiting work involving textiles and printing since its founding in 1977. The program is invitation-only, but its advisory committee welcomes artists at every point of their careers, generally for 18 to 24 months, an unusually long time for a residency, and an honorarium and production funds are included. The few lucky enough to be selected each year are able to work on ambitious projects that are eventually displayed at the museum. Joining their ranks in the 2023-24 class will be Risa Puno, Borna Sammak and Jessica Campbell.


The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artists in Residence, New York: Every year, three artists of African or Afro-Latinx descent are selected for this lauded 11-month artists-in-residence (A.I.R.) program, which has been an integral component of the Studio Museum in Harlem since its founding in 1968. Some 150-artists have now participated and its list of alums, which includes David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu and Titus Kaphar (all of whom went on to become MacArthur “genius” grant recipients,) as well as Simone Leigh, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and took home the prestigious Golden Lion for creating the best work in the fair’s main show, “reads like a canon of a half-century of Black American art,” as the journalist Siddhartha Mitter put it in 2020. Beyond providing studios and mentorship, the Studio Museum gives $25,000 to each artist and puts on a group show of each class’s work that is always closely watched. Since the museum shuttered for construction in 2018, these exhibitions have been taking place at MoMA PS1 in Queens. But the Studio Museum’s David Adjaye-designed home is set to open in 2024 and will feature more than twice as much space for both exhibitions and the A.I.R. program.


The Poor Farm, Little Wolf, Wisconsin: The married artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam are apparently tireless. They maintain solo practices, teach in the academy (at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the College of DuPage, respectively) and since 1999 have run a well-regarded exhibition space in a garage in suburban Oak Park, Illinois. Naturally, it is called the Suburban. Since 2008, they’ve also operated a multifarious arts center in what was once the Waupaca County Poor Farm, a home for the indigent built in 1876 in Little Wolf, Wisconsin. It presents exhibitions, is home to a publishing imprint, has its own pilsner beer by the artist John Riepenhoff (proceeds from which benefit the center) and contains 16 beds that allow it to host a residency called Living within the Play. Sometimes, whole university classes are in residence. At other times, it’s just random individuals or groups. There is no official application, you just ask to come. But while the premise is low-key, big things tend to happen.

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