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LAUNCH PAD // Studios at MASS MOCA (North Adams, Massachusetts)

"It was also a bit surprising how much the artists valued their unfettered access to the museum’s exhibitions. I had assumed the artists would enjoy visiting the galleries a few times during their stay, of course, but many of the artists made it a daily component of their practice and felt that it played a significant part in the creative breakthroughs they experienced during the residency."

What is the road between a first idea and the launch of a new residency program? In LAUNCH PAD we are checking in with our Emerging Program Institute alumni to hear about the challenges, triumphs, and many surprises on the road to launching and the first year of running a residency.

This month we caught up with Blair Benjamin, director of Studios at MASS MOCA.

MASS MoCA launched the new Studios residency program this past October to support visual artists. Why now/how did the program come about?

A local artist named Rick Morgenthal had been gently prodding MASS MoCA to launch a studio residency program for years. Rick had done several artist residencies, and it was clear to him that MASS MoCA and our community had the right assets and capacity to offer something special.

It took us a while to catch up with Rick’s vision, but finally we couldn’t say no when an ideal location for studio space became vacant at MASS MoCA. It was the right size to accommodate 8 studios and some common area, with lots of windows and 13-foot ceilings and easy access. And its most recent occupant was the art department of the local college in North Adams, which had used the space as teaching studios for two years during a renovation project on its campus. So the space already had plywood floors and slop sinks. All we had to do was put in some additional three-quarter height partition walls and doors to complete the 8 studios. In addition, the owner of a building across the street from MASS MoCA started renovating vacant apartments in the spring of 2015. The apartments were perfect for short-term stays and were in a convenient spot right in the heart of downtown and across from the museum.

We got the green light to charge forward in June, we posted the application in August, selected participants in September while completing renovations, and our first residents arrived in mid-October. We wanted to have our first residencies during the beautiful Fall season in the Berkshires rather than wait for the depths of winter or the following spring, so we hustled to make everything happen quickly, and it all managed to come together nicely.

How does the Studios program connect to the Museum's public programming and mission?

The Studios at MASS MoCA is designed and managed by Assets for Artists, a multi-pronged collaborative program run out of MASS MoCA. Assets for Artists was initially an experiment of mine when I served as MASS MoCA’s Director of Real Estate & Community Development, designed to explore whether “asset-building” (an obscure niche in the community development world focused on financial education and various strategies for assisting low-income households) could be joined together with artists and the “creative economy.” It was a little bit outside of our wheelhouse, except that it fit with MASS MoCA’s mission to be a laboratory for arts-based economic development (as well as for artistic creation). It’s grown steadily since its launch in 2008, serving hundreds of artists in five states. It’s a natural evolution of that program to now offer residencies at MASS MoCA with one of the components being professional development assistance using all that we’ve learned through the Assets for Artists program.

In terms of programming, the Studios exists as a space for artists to have devoted studio time in a creative, stimulating environment. Artists in the Studios have free access to the museum and use the space and installations as inspiration for their practice. Our MASS MoCA colleagues were impressed by the quality and energy of the artists-in-residence that we’ve brought to the museum this Fall, and we’re already exploring how to create collaborations across departments. A few of the participating artists will manage to catch the eye of our curators (that has already happened in the case of artist Rachel Sussman, who was in our very first cohort of residents last October and was then chosen for two exhibitions that will be on view at MASS MoCA this summer), and several other artists have been invited to participate in the museum’s education programs.

What was most surprising from the first wave of residencies?

It was surprising to us, but probably not to people who have been managing residency programs for years, how quickly each group of artists bonded and became a dynamic support system for each other. The volume of activities they organized on their own far exceeded what we formally provided or could have imagined.

It was also a bit surprising how much the artists valued their unfettered access to the museum’s exhibitions. I had assumed the artists would enjoy visiting the galleries a few times during their stay, of course, but many of the artists made it a daily component of their practice and felt that it played a significant part in the creative breakthroughs they experienced during the residency.

Assets for Artists is part of the residency. Tell us more.

Assets for Artists consists of a wide range of programming, from artist marketing workshops in Mystic, Connecticut and Lawrence, Massachusetts, to matched savings accounts and credit counseling for artists in rural Rhode Island. Across the country, there are many great professional development resources for artists, and I think we’ve done a nice job of learning best practices while also introducing some innovations of our own.

In my view, what Assets for Artists does best is give artists some tools and incentives to improve their personal finance skills and strengthen the revenue-generating potential of their artistic practice. There’s no one-size-fits-all remedy, because we work with a wonderful variety of artists. But I think we can almost always find some concrete ways to be helpful.

Each artist that comes through the residency program is offered some free one-on-one financial and business assistance if they want it, and has the opportunity to attend any of our local Assets for Artists workshop programs for free. In certain cases, we can also guide residents into one of our “matched savings” grant programs (which are geographically restricted based on the funding we receive -- parts of Rhode Island, all of Massachusetts, and parts of Connecticut, for example).

 What are plans for the program moving forward? And how can artists apply?

After our success this fall and winter, we’ve determined that the program can become a year-round operation. For this Spring/Summer season, we were able to add a couple of additional slots by inviting two artists at a time to use Makers’ Mill (a community print and fiber facility in downtown North Adams) as their studio while still being fully integrated in the residency program. The first pair of artists to be assigned to work there are having a great experience.

In the future, we’d love to offer some full fellowships if we can find donors interested in supporting the program in that way, so we’ll have to see how the program funding evolves. Based on the 300+ applications we received for our second round, I feel confident there would be enough demand for us to expand the number of slots if we can build the capacity to support that growth. Since we’re still a young program, there are endless possibilities for the future.

Interested artists can visit and keep an eye out for our application (coming in May) for fall/winter residencies!