I should have put a question mark there at the end: The Future of Art Retreats? Because, really, I don’t know what it is. There *is* a future–art retreats offer so much to so many people that they’re definitely here to stay. But with the ending of some of the biggest–Artfest had its final retreat this past spring–people are talking about What’s Next. Things are changing, and people are talking. For many of the retreats, attendance is down, money is tight, teachers are having to rethink constant travel. For organizers, the challenge is to understand what attendees want: longer workshops? Shorter workshops? Smaller, more intimate retreats? Local retreats? Larger retreats with more energy? And then figure out a way to offer that.
It’s hard to know because, just like everything else, different people want different things. We’ve just returned from Art is You in Petaluma, and it’s something people were talking about there, too. Sallianne and Ellen do a marvelous job of anticipating and providing for the needs of their attendees, both at their West Coast retreat and at their original venue in Stamford. How, though, can the experience be made possible for those who’ve never attended either one? How can they experience the inspiration and energy you just can’t get anywhere but at an art retreat? It’s a challenge, indeed.
[I'm not writing here about online retreats; that's another topic, and one about which I know very little. Most of the people I talk to relish the real-life, face-to-face energy that a virtual retreat, no matter how well-planned, just can't provide.]
Suggestions and speculation about the future of retreats run the gamut from smaller local retreats to something huge that would attempt to fill the void left by the ending of Artfest. Thomas Mann talked about a way to determine qualification for advanced classes so that people who have mastered the basic techniques in a medium–metal work, for instance–can be assured that the workshop they sign up for will actually be “advanced” and that everyone in the class will have a firm mastery of the basics and be ready to move forward with the instructor.
Others have talked to me about retreats that are more wholistic, with periods for yoga and meditation or hiking and cooking or–gasp!–naps. They long for a stretch of calm days that rejuvenate not only the creative spirit with workshops but also the frazzled mind and body of budding artists who never really have time to slow down and tune into that spirit.
Some muse about “all-girl” pajama-party-style retreats, where everyone stays in their pjs and drinks tea all day while they take workshops. Others want international venues: workshops combined with travel to places they otherwise wouldn’t get to visit.
One worry that I have when I listen to many of the conversations is the possibility that retreats might morph into indulgences only a few can afford. At a time when many people can afford to attend only one retreat a year, at the very most–something closer to home that doesn’t require they stay in the most expensive hotel in town–the idea of a 10-day painting workshop in Tuscany isn’t even a dream.
An art retreat can’t be all things to all people. The kind of retreat that caters to serious artists who want to take advanced workshops and hone their skills with top-notch instructors isn’t going to be the same retreat that takes a group of women to Paris for painting, pain au chocolat and a weekend at the flea market. Neither is better than the other; each will have its devoted fans as well as those who can’t imagine spending their money in that particular way. I think what new organizers just getting started are going to have to do is better define what it is they want to provide. The first thing they have to ask themselves is: Who are your attendees? For instance: If your retreat is expensive, do you really want to offer scholarships or discounts? Think about it: if 90% of your attendees have plenty of money to go and do and buy whatever they want, how comfortable will the workshops and social hours and dinners and lunches be for people who are unable to pay for workshops or stay at the venue? We don’t like to admit it, but we are a class-conscious society, and for someone who just wants to learn to solder, spending a weekend amongst people who are comparing notes about the upcoming mixed media cruise to Cancun or the watercolor workshops next spring in Spain probably isn’t going to be the most inspiring way to spend your limited time and money.
Once you’ve figured out who’s going to come, you can start to try to determine what they want. Some people will relish a day spent hiking in the woods taking reference photographs for the next day’s workshop, while others will resent any time outside the actual studio. Some want a built-in day of shopping and sight-seeing, and others are going to grumble about having to walk and get sweaty. If you’re large enough, you can offer something for lots of different people, but if you’re not, you’re going to have to focus. Perhaps that’s the key: focusing. Artfest could offer a lot of different things for lots of different people because it was so large: the venue was large, the attendance was large, the workshops were large. Iron Artist competitions, beach bonfire journaling, dorm parties–it was all possible. Most others, though, are going to have to narrow their focus, figure out what, exactly, they want to offer, and then do that as well as they possibly can.
I’d love it if there were huge Artfest-sized retreats available to everyone; it’s an experience I wish everyone could have. The energy, the inspiration, the camaraderie–it’s amazing. I came home from Art is You filled with energy and ideas. But what I know is that travel to either coast just isn’t possible for everyone. Not just the expense, but the time and the preparation and the sheer overwhelm of everything together: saving the money and making the arrangements, taking time off from the job or the studio, traveling and recovering from travel, trying to figure out the whole horror of packing what you’ll need without taking too much–it’s daunting, indeed.
While I don’t have the answer to What’s Next for retreats, I’m really interested in the paths they’re going to take. I truly hope they don’t become an indulgence that’s available only to those with plenty of free time and expendable income, and I hope they don’t all become virtual, online-only experiences; I hope at least some of the paths bring a retreat right to the door of anyone who wants to attend.
Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.
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