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A Fairy Godmother for Artists – Discussing apexart with Program Director Elizabeth Larison

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I met Elizabeth Larison when I went to see Fencing in Democracy, an exhibit organized by Margaret Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barriga, at apexart, a non-profit arts organization in New York City.

I quickly learned that she worked for apexart as their Director of Programs, and that she was specifically working on their New York City Fellowship Program. This, I learned, is an artist’s residency, but one unlike most others: instead of providing a place and time for artists to do creative work, this fellowship provides a place and time for artists to experience a new culture and to take a break from creative work.

I thought this sounded like a most intriguing idea, and asked her if she would meet with me at a later point and tell me more about it. Being an obliging sort, she said yes, and so meet again we did.

We went out for a cold drink on a hot day, and had a nice conversation about her work at a small coffee shop in Tribeca, only briefly interrupted by the random appearance of a Ghostbuster-themed vehicle on the adjacent street. Here’s what we talked about:

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A Q& A with Elizabeth Larison (pictured above)

Date: July 12, 2016

Occupation: Director of Programs for apexart

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Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I am very intrigued by the NYC Fellowship Program. Is it a unique artist residency?

Yes, as far as I know. We actually no longer call it a residency because the term “residency” comes with certain expectations. So now we call it a fellowship.

Can you tell me a little bit about how it works?

Artists don’t make art in the program! It was really founded in response to a traditional artist residency program. Steven Rand, who founded the program (and apexart, for that matter), was acting to do something different. There’s a trend for artists in mid-career to have lots of opportunities to travel, all around the world, but they mainly go to art fairs and art shows, or else to a residency where they make more of the same work. The culture gets replicated and they encounter similar institutions and similar people again and again in different places. We are really creating an educational program, and reacting against that, or at least responding to that. When artists develop their research or skills in a given area, they tend to isolate.

It’s a problem with adulthood, people grow older and stop looking for new things, new experiences. So this is a cultural immersion program trying to pull them out of their bubble again.

It’s a space away from work; in fact, Fellows agree not to create art while they’re part of the program. They’re here to reflect, not to produce. To think about their purpose, to try new things.

We have a space for artists to come and stay for 30 days, in Union Square. And we also have an International Fellowship program where we send people from New York to other places in other countries. We have eight fellows a year come to New York City and five a year, almost always from New York or other parts of the US, going other places.

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I believe you had mentioned when you initially told me about this, that people can’t apply, but can only be nominated, for this program. What kind of reactions do you get when you tell someone you want to give them a free month-long trip to NYC, with an apartment, internet access, airfare, and a program of events?

Well, we sometimes get an odd reaction initially when we ask people to be nominators. Sometimes I have to e-mail people multiple times.

They think you’re some kind of scammer?

Yes! It sounds very unusual at first and almost too good to be true! But the nominators have to make sure that the nominees understand what our fellowship program is and isn’t. It’s not networking! It’s a different kind of education.

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How do you find the nominators?

Well, for people in the International Fellowship Program, we are looking for potential nominators who are based in New York or who have worked here, people with a network of creative people. We don’t just look for people working within the visual arts, but are also open to different kinds of professionals. But they can’t be what we consider to be gatekeepers. We usually don’t look for curators to nominate. Sometimes educators, but usually not educators affiliated with major private institutions. Sometimes we reach out to people at community colleges, public institutions, community groups. For the NYC Fellows it works similarly. We are looking for unrepresented countries and cities. We are asking nominators to help us circumnavigate a system that rewards Type A personalities, to help us find people who haven’t had opportunities, for people who need a break to reevaluate. There are a lot of opportunities for young emerging artists, like “Younger than Jesus” and the 89plus project, but that’s not what we are doing here. All our Fellows have to meet a minimum age requirement of 30 years.

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How many artists have been NYC Fellows over the years?

We’ve had close to 150 people in the NYC Fellowship and the International Fellowship program. It began in 2000 with just the NYC Fellowship, and we added the International Fellowship in 2007.

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What kinds of creative people participate in this program?

Some visual artists, photographers. We recently had a puppeteer. Conceptual artists, poets, other writers, publishers, musicians, curators, actors. I think dancers, too.

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What is the nominating process like?

Our nominators each pick only one person; we want them to give us the best candidate they can think of. And then we want to know how they know that person, and for how long, and why they think they’re a good candidate, and how they could benefit. For the inbound people (the NYC Fellows) we want people who have never visited NYC before.

We review and see if the candidate sounds good, we don’t look at their work, but we do try to get a sense of the kind of visibility they have.   Then we have a short meeting with them (or Skype) to make sure they understand the program and that it’s a good fit.

And does the International Fellowship Program work the same way? How are the locations chosen?

We send people nowhere they’ve ever been, so we do review their travel history. We maintain relationships with past Fellows or organizers of past apexart exhibitions, and often develop International Fellowships where we have these sorts of contacts who understand what we do and why we do it—they get our program model. These individuals then help me arrange the Fellowship Program in a given location. But we want to put Fellows in places where they are not familiar. Sometimes they’re dealing with a foreign language, but not always.

Are all of the locations big cities?

They’re generally cities. Sometimes smaller cities. I think the smallest place we’ve sent someone to is Dunedin, New Zealand. If it’s a place with a smaller population, it likely has something else really going for it, like a unique history or geography. But mostly we go with larger cities.

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Do most of the fellows find the program a valuable creative experience? Or do they find themselves lonely, or isolated?

All of the above! We really focus on evaluation of the program by getting feedback from former Fellows. At the conclusion of the Fellowship, we conduct a recorded exit interview and ask them various questions; they’re all up on our website. One month after the Fellowship, we send a survey with questions. We’re trying to see if the program has been a catalyst for change, personally or creatively. Then we send another survey in six months. Then another after one year.

We find that after the Fellowship they are more willing and able to think outside the box. During the Fellowship at times they’re scared, at times exhilarated, at times lonely. But they do say that they are less frenzied and pressured after this experience, and that they have more confidence and a greater sense of calm and curiosity.

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What kind of events and activities do your fellows end up doing here in NYC?

We have the Fellows do activities that are new to them. This might include taking an improv class, or visiting a courthouse to witness a criminal trial. Mainly, we aim to get them out there to witness and do new things. We also have them see a therapist four times during their stay. We try to make sure that they do things that cover a range of categories, including: spiritual, physical, historical, and exploratory. And we arrange for them to see performances, and experience culture and museums. We almost always include a few touristy things like a Circle Line tour—these things are novel and fun and also informative. We re-use some activities, but some are seasonal. In the summer there’s a lot to do outdoors. And we also always have to figure out what new things are happening in New York.

We require that Fellows write in an online journal, but tell them it should not just operate as a checklist of what they’ve been doing, but offer reflections. What they’re noticing about the place, and what their thoughts are. Not art-related, but about their experiences.

We have two to four events a day on their schedule. So they’re busy, and sometimes a little tired. They have one free day a week as well. We don’t want to exhaust them! I schedule in advance as much as possible, usually about a week out at a time.

Do you do the events with the Fellows?

Some of them. We all meet with the Fellow once while they’re here (all of the people who work at apexart). And we have hello and goodbye lunches with them. Last fall I did an aerial silks class with a Fellow. And one of my colleagues went to Brighton Beach and Coney Island with a Fellow to see the boardwalk/beach culture there. We try and have a good balance of activities. They should have some quiet, but not quiet all the time.

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Have there been any disasters, or Fellowships that just went wrong?

One time someone didn’t really understand our program and didn’t embrace the activities. So we try to vet people to make sure they’re open to new experiences. We don’t have anyone do anything dangerous, but we do intend to take them out of their comfort zone. And barring any triggering phobias, we expect them to participate in all of the activities. But that was just one instance. Besides some minor scheduling issues occasionally, it goes really smoothly. We work with some really good people.

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Is the fellows program expensive to administer?

Well, that’s a relative question. We have a strict budget that needs to cover activities fees. The Fellows pay for their own food. We take care of flights and accommodations, their cellphone. My salary. It’s not an infinite budget, so we take advantage of free opportunities and connections we have in NYC. There are a lot of things to do on the cheap!

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What has been particularly surprising to you since you’ve been doing this work?

How much the interview and survey responses from the Fellows do really reflect how the program describes itself. The Fellowship is a big life event.

It is a deeply meaningful activity for people. It is very idealistic and romantic to say that, but it is true. Sometimes I feel like a fairy godmother. The Fellowship program really is a catalyst both for creative and personal development.

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Is there a way for people who are interested to get involved in the Fellowship program? Ideas, donations, etc.?

Donations are always welcome. But we also love having interesting people in a Fellowship location. We are looking for people to meet with our Fellows; not artists and curators, but people to share what they do professionally, and who would be up for joining a Fellow on an activity. And I am always looking for interesting ideas and experiences (especially if they are free or cheap)!

It seems like apexart’s Fellowships would benefit more than just artists. Many people could learn from being a Fellow in your program.

I think so. Too many people hide behind screens. All the stuff the program promotes is a lesson in life. There’s no secret ingredient, though. Anyone can do these things. I do these things. I’ve been in NYC for 11 years doing things and having new and unexpected experiences. I have to tell myself to continue to do new things, and then I am always rewarded by it when I do.

So what’s the best advice you have?

It’s easy to get stuck. But it’s easy to get unstuck, too.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

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Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-in image courtesy of zuccheronero / Shutterstock.com; All other images courtesy of apexart

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Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle

Alexi Auld, author

* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

* Eric Bennett, author

Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park

*Sarah Cox, Write A House

* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom

* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa

Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers

* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot

Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter

* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur

* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

* Camilla Huey, artist, designer

*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita

* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor

Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor

Jim Knable, playwright and musician

* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department

* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51

* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator

* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate

*Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker

*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer

* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library

* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York

* Jibrail Nor, drummer

* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America

* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes

* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program

* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists

* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer

* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator

* Patrick Smith, author and pilot

* Juliet Sorensen, law professor

* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author

* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister

*Jonathan Todres, law professor

* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app

* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher

* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion

* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino

Ekow Yankah, law professor