Articles and Features

Artist Colonies Of Our Times: Collective Forms of Creating and Living

Songzhuang Artist Residence. Artist colonies
Songzhuang Artist Residence

By Benedetta Ricci

The term ‘art colony’ typically refers to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century international phenomenon that involved close-knit groups of like-minded artists escaping the frantic city life in favour of quiet rural environments in what became a mass movement from urban centres into the countryside. Away from everyday distractions, the artists would focus on their creative practice, simultaneously shaping some of the major art movements of the century, and experimenting alternative forms of communal living.
Besides being partly conjured by art communes in the 1960s and 1970s, partly living on in artist-in-residence programs across the globe, some fascinating examples of contemporary artist colonies persist to this date, from well-known establishments to gems off the beaten track.

“Songzhuang was one of the first places in China where you could enjoy a free way of life.”

Li Xianting

Songzhuang, China

Art Museum Entrance, Songzhuang, April-2011. Artist Colonies
Art Museum Entrance, Songzhuang, April-2011

Home to around 4,000 artists, Songzhuang is the largest gathering of contemporary artists in China if not in the world.
The area, located in eastern Beijing, has been attracting artists since the early 1990s when they moved from another community in Beijing’s north-west, the Old Summer Palace, maintaining the original communal lifestyle and their spirit of idealism.
Among them were avant-garde artists Fang Lijun, Zhang Huiping and Yue Minjun as well as art critic Li Xianting.
For more than two decades, painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, and conceptual artists have lived side-by-side despite the threat of local authorities and police.
The year 2006 saw the opening of the Songzhuang Art Museum, the first public art facility providing both an exhibition platform for artists and a community centre, followed – due to the increase in the artist population – by the construction of innovative and alternative solutions for working and living.

Ein Hod, Israel

Public sculpture in Ein Hod, Israel. Artist colonies
Public sculpture in Ein Hod, Israel

Sitting on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the historical Artists Village of Ein Hod hosts a thriving community of artists – painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, and metal, glass, and stone artists – which represents a large proportion of the 500 residents.
Following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and a failed attempt to create a moshav (a type of Israeli cooperative settlement), the historical village was ultimately left in ruins. 
It was only in 1953 that Dadaist Marcel Janco, inspired by the evocative surroundings, found in the abandoned village an inspiring environment for art-making and the ideal location for a utopian art colony.
Tel Aviv’s bohemians and artists began to spend their festivities in the village’s idyllic context; workshops and co-operative galleries began to gather pace in the 1970s; artists began to live here full-time with new homes created in the former village’s original style. 
Today, Ein Hod is the only artists’ village in Israel and provides its residents with a supportive and creative framework.
The village boasts 22 galleries, 14 art workshops, and two museums: the Janco-Dada Museum and the Central Artists Gallery, one of the country’s largest galleries with its five exhibition halls and alternating shows by local and visiting artists.

Yaddo, New York

Yaddo is a creative community established in an estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. The historical mansion was purchased in 1881 by Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina and then converted into an artists colony by the wish that it could be a place of “rest and refreshment [for] authors, painters, sculptors, an artist musicians and other artists both men and women, few in number but chosen for their creative gifts.”
The name ‘Yaddo’ was invented by one of the Trask children.
Surprisingly, legend has it that before the mansion was built, the property hosted a farmhouse, gristmill and tavern which used to be a hangout for legendary writers from the 1830s and ‘40s; Edgar Allan Poe included.

Taking the shape of an artist residence, every year Yaddo hosts around 200 artists working in a very wide variety of art fields including literature, visual arts, music composition, performance, and video.
The ‘Yaddo artists’ have collectively won an outstanding number of international recognitions and prizes in various disciplines, from the Pulitzer to the Nobel Prize.
The long string of notable alumni includes Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Martin Puryear, Amy Sillman, Clyfford Still, and Terry Adkins.

Emerging as well as established artists who want to take part of the residency program can send applications and are judged solely on the quality of their work as the Yaddo corporation has a strong commitment to social egalitarianism, internationalism, and support of artists at political risk. The residency of the artists is usually around five weeks, during which they can focus on their work without interruption in a tranquil and supportive environment.

Bussana Vecchia, Italy

Bussana Vecchia, Italy. Artist Colonies
Bussana Vecchia, Italy

Bussana Vecchia is a small medieval town in Italy, inhabited by an international community of artists. Almost completely destroyed by a violent earthquake in 1887, the town was then evacuated and left abandoned. In the late 1950s, artists from Italy and abroad, charmed by the uniqueness of the place, started rebuilding the town and living there, giving Bussana a second life.
Everything started when clay artist Mario Giani, aka Clizia, visited Bussana Vecchia and decided to create an international art collective. Despite lacking every infrastructure at that time, the town soon attracted artisans and artists from everywhere, who restored the town using only local materials and debris. The town still keeps its medieval structure and, with its narrow and bustling streets, Mediterranean scrubs, olives and on rocky hills, is a magical place by itself.

Frescoes, paintings, installations, and murals disseminated across the city but also atelier and shops contribute to the vibrant and creative atmosphere.
Since the town was officially abandoned, Bussana Vecchia was the ‘city without law’, where artists could be free to create without any restrictions. However, the art commune was regulated in the 1970s by a sort of constitution, which defined the rules of the town: there would be no private property; the buildings would be assigned to artists that needed them to produce art and, whether abandoned, they would be taken back by the community.
Some of the most important names that populated the city in the 60 and 70 are Ruiba, Gianna Canova, Klaus Quast, Roggerone, Miriam Hawort, Jean Santilli, Daniela Mercante, Carlo Maglitto, Marco Orsatti, Daniel Harvey, Elsa Lagorio, Karlos Rosa.

Relevant sources to learn more

How long can Beijing’s biggest artist colony survive?
Yaddo – A Retreat For Artists in Saratoga Springs, NY

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