Summertime, the Livin' Is Easy, and Even the Artists Are Having Some Fun: While Congress Debates the Merits of the National Endowment for the Arts, Composers, Writers and Painters Are Playing in the Woods - but Rarely at Tax Payer Expense, as Art Colonies Opt for Private Funding

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While Congress debates the merits of the National Endowment for the Arts, composers, writers and painters are playing in the woods -- but rarely at taxpayer expense, as art colonies opt for private funding.

Even as lawmakers in Washington threaten to defund the National Endowments for the Arts, artists across America are packing their bags and heading off to do their sculpting, painting and writing in rustic retreats. Though funding is always uncertain, art colonies are more popular than ever.

According to best estimates, at least 70 such colonies exist in the United States -- and maybe as many as 100. And while some function year-round, most are a summertime phenomenon.

"Thirty-six hundred artists attended artist communities in 1995, and that's a lot of artists getting support in a field with low budgets," says Tricia Snell, who heads the Alliance of Artist Communities, an advocacy group based in Portland, Ore. Some of these communities, such as McDowell in New Hampshire and Yaddo in upstate New York, cater to visual artists, writers and composers. Others have more eclectic programs. Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, N.Y., for instance, welcomes weavers, jewelry makers and even stone carvers.

In some respects, artist communities resemble summer camps for adults. If artists at Art/Omi, a small art colony in New York's Hudson Valley, voice any complaint, it's that they are overindulged. "I've never eaten so much food in my life," remarked Israeli artist Sigalit Landau as she contemplated the prospect of consuming yet another catered meal.

A nonprofit foundation, Art/Omi runs three programs: one for writers in the spring and the fall, one for visual artists in July and one for jazz musicians in August. Candidates come from all over the world -- Mozambique, South Korea, Australia and China, as well as the United States -- and are selected by committee on the basis of their work. They receive free room and board, art supplies and the promise of no distractions.

Art/Omi, named for a nearby village, offers an additional if somewhat paradoxical advantage, explains Sylvie Bussieres, a native of Quebec who has attended art colonies in Canada, Mexico and Europe. "It gets you away from the art world." In fact, artists are under no obligation to do anything at all during their three-week stay "I've been working hard for two years straight," says another participant who requested anonymity. "Now that I'm here, all I want to do is relax and hang out."

Perhaps because many art colonies emphasize process above the product, they often have a problem raising funds. Snell explains: "There's a rigorous application and selection process, but once you're at the colony, you don't have to finish a project -- that's not the point. The point is to give time and space to the artist to develop." Governments and nonprofit foundations, understandably, are reluctant to support something this intangible.

Like many of her colleagues, Snell fears that funders are looking too closely at the bottom line. "The creative process needs to be encouraged -- not just for artists but for schools, for college students, for businesses and public institutions," she says. Even scientists engaged in pure research are passed over for grants in favor of those working on projects that promise practical benefits, says Snell.

Some colonies, however, are goal-oriented. Inspiration Point, a center for aspiring opera singers located in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, provides practical training to aspiring performers. Young singers (the average age is 27) are given the opportunity to perform with a full professional orchestra before enthusiastic audiences.

"We give the singers the training to market themselves and launch their careers," James Swaggert, president of the colony, tells Insight. It's a demanding program, too. In five weeks, the 54 participants will appear in at least five operas. …