Sasha Dela: The momentum leading up to the Galveston Artist Residency (GAR) quickened after Hurricane Ike. What happened, and what other events lead to the creation of the residency?
Eric Schnell: After hurricane Ike I felt a sense of urgency about getting GAR up and running. When Galveston is hit by a big storm, there are huge cultural losses. The oldest buildings, the ones that have the richest histories or stories to tell, usually suffer the most damage because they are grandfathered code-wise and just can’t withstand the storm. In their place new structures and projects are built that are largely driven by the desire for a quick, easy financial gain. I felt like GAR could be a different voice, arguing for beauty: quiet, and hopefully, powerful.
SD: You’ve had some partners in the creation of the GAR. Who is involved? Its funding model is somewhat autonomous in a way that is unusual for an artist-in-residence program, correct?
ES: GAR was founded by me and Bert Geary. Bert is a scientist who is also interested in community building, so he can see GAR in terms of energy units and social activism. This is very helpful in that it helps keep GAR from drifting too far into art-centric thinking. Rob Whalley is our architect/designer. He is brilliant; GAR looks so incredible because of him. He has spent a lot of time here and really got involved in how the site would work. Around the time of our opening party last January we were able to hire Sallie Barbee as our program manager. She has worked very closely with us on developing all aspects of GAR. She has been a great collaborator.
Our funding model may be unusual for a residency program in that we tried to raise our funds upfront, I think because GAR is on a barrier island and inherently fragile, I am obsessed with long term sustainability. The goal was to set up an endowment so that GAR would be stable and somewhat autonomous; we are almost there.
SD: GAR adds sparkle to the periphery of the Houston arts, its immediate audience being Galveston. However it is a retreat in a way for the participating artists, as some come from major art centers like New York. How do you see this as important?
ES: I see the idea of a retreat being very important. When I moved to Galveston 10 years ago it was after 8 years in New York City. I was struck by the relative silence of the place. The true value of the residency is the gift of time, of being able to sink into your work for a year. I think this is a rare and valuable thing. It was something I always wanted. Houston is close enough if you need to connect to the world; we are not that isolated. It is a good balance.
SD: One of the four studios is your studio/office. How does this center the mission of the residency in terms of its artist-centered and artist-centric approach? Furthermore how has the creation of the artist residency affected your practice as an artist?
ES: I think it was important to create a situation that I would want to work in. Having my studio here helps me stay close to the feel of GAR and hopefully by being more present I will know when there are problems that need to be worked on.
I do think that spending so much time and energy on GAR is changing my studio practice, but I can’t really tell what this means yet. Working on GAR always feels to me like working on a very complex drawing or sculpture, so for now it feels like much of my studio energy gets channeled into GAR. Sometimes I have these oddly un-terrifying visions of the future in which my studio practice is just me sweeping the sidewalks.
SD: Tell me about the selection process? What do you provide to the artists in residence?
ES: So far we have used a nomination method. We ask artists, curators, or writers who have a good feel for what we are trying to do to nominate artists for the program. Then a selection panel meets and chooses three artists to be awarded residencies. At some point I could see going towards an open call, but we are not quite there yet.
The artists are given a studio and apartment, a monthly stipend and a bicycle. We also try and bring some artists/curators/writers through to do studio visits and at the end of the year we have a show in our gallery space. Last year we did a West Texas field trip and it was a lot of fun, so hopefully we can make that a part of every year.
SD: How do you program the exhibition space?
ES: Currently Sallie and I handle all the programming for the exhibition space. We’ve gotten much better at planning well into the future. We set aside time each week to talk about the gallery and throw some ideas around. With the ideas that stick, we brainstorm further, and eventually something rises to the surface. For the time being our gallery programming tends to be about what we want to see in the space. All our ideas are loosely tied to our experiences of being in Galveston. We invite a single artist or a group of artists, or occasionally a professional outside of the art world, to work with us on a project. Our level of collaboration or direct involvement varies depending on the project. Just like all aspects of GAR, our gallery programming methods are not set in stone. There is always room for change and growth.
SD: There have been two rounds of artists now, correct? How have they taken advantage of the time there? Has the structure of the residency changed in response to their experiences?
ES: Yes, we are beginning our second year of artists. I feel like our first year went very smoothly and we have already started to get a feel for how different artists will use the residency. Last year we had an artist from Philadelphia, Nsenga Knight who came to Galveston without a car and managed to live off of the stipend. She seemed to really connect with the place and the people. But that is not the only model. We also had two artists, Kelly Sears and Nick Barbee who both came to Galveston from Houston and, while they were sometimes torn between time in Galveston and responsibilities in Houston, they also had successful residencies and strengthened the bonds between GAR and the Houston art scene. This year we are expanding the net a little and are bringing in our first international artist, Davide Savaroni from Italy. Our goal is to have the residency be a positive and productive time for as wide a range of artists as possible. At the end of the year we try to get feedback from the residents about what their experience was like, and how we could have made it better, and adjust from there. I feel like we’ll learn something and continue to improve with every year.
Images courtesy of Galveston Artist Residency.