How to Set up an Inexpensive Artist Retreat

/, Artist Tips, The Artist's Life/How to Set up an Inexpensive Artist Retreat

How to Set up an Inexpensive Artist Retreat

photo of cute cottage I stayed in on Cape Cod

The cot­tage where I stayed on my fall retreat in Cape Cod with my artist friends Janet and Cather­ine. The weath­er was beau­ti­ful! You can see Pil­grim Lake and some dunes at the back of the cot­tage. A pri­vate beach was across the street from the front of the cot­tage.

I just got back from an enrich­ing, won­der­ful, five-day/­four-night retreat on Cape Cod, where I paint­ed with two oth­er women artists and enjoyed myself immense­ly. It was ful­fill­ing, and (here’s the best part), it didn’t cost big bucks! In fact, I did it all for under $350. That was my bud­get, and I worked hard to scrape up that much. I couldn’t do it for one pen­ny more.

Five days. On Cape Cod. (One of the most expen­sive places in the States to stay.) For $350. That includ­ed everything—lodging, trans­porta­tion, food, even a din­ner out. The cot­tage I stayed in was new­ly ren­o­vat­ed, com­fort­able, and beau­ti­ful, with views of Pil­grim Lake and dunes on one side, and a pri­vate beach on the oth­er. I already had all the sup­plies I need­ed, so I didn’t include any expens­es for that.

I fig­ure if I can do it, you can, too, so in this post I want to share how to set up an inex­pen­sive artist retreat.

I’ve talked before about how I’m not rich. Most artists aren’t. In fact, accord­ing to a recent study by the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts, fine artists in the Unit­ed States make a medi­an salary of $34,000 a year, even though they tend to be high­ly edu­cat­ed. Few­er than 1% of all fine artists make the big bucks.

There are about 200,000 of us in the visu­al arts pro­fes­sion. And, before you think, “Well, if you’re high­ly edu­cat­ed and make only $34,000 a year, it must be because you’re one of those space-cadet artis­tic types who doesn’t know how to be prac­ti­cal or busi­ness-mind­ed”

[Insert loud, WONK-sound­ing noise for wrong answer here], I have some news from the same report:

Artists are some of the most entre­pre­neur­ial types you’ll find in soci­ety. We are three times as like­ly to be self-employed as oth­er work­ers, and of the 200,000 or so fine artists in the coun­try, 55% have their own busi­ness­es. (Yep. I’m one of ‘em.)

In addi­tion, we’re great at set­ting up mul­ti­ple rev­enue streams: we sell our art; we teach class­es; we might also be design­ers or find oth­er free­lance work to sup­ple­ment our income. (Actu­al­ly, I do all three. I’m a great mul­ti-tasker. Just don’t ever call me a dilet­tante, though, because I am dis­ci­plined and focused, and I tend to get grumpy when peo­ple use that term to mean I must be a “mas­ter of none” when it comes to my pro­fes­sion and deep pas­sion.)

OK, so I’ve set my argu­ment up. I’m not rich, and nei­ther are most of my col­leagues. But dang, we know how to work hard and be inven­tive.

On the flip side of that, we also need respite and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. But on our mea­ger income, with no big com­pa­ny to foot the bill for our con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion, how can we make sure we get what we need to grow and fur­ther our artis­tic endeav­ors?

Lots of dif­fer­ent ways, actu­al­ly, and I’ll talk about them in dif­fer­ent posts. But in this post, I want to focus on the most won­der­ful of them all:

photo of Dawn Boyer's favorite beach to paint

The beach I paint­ed on dur­ing the retreat with my good friend Dar­lene. I love this place.

The Inexpensive Artist Retreat

One way to make it hap­pen is to spend a lot of time (and some­times mon­ey) writ­ing grant pro­pos­als or fill­ing out appli­ca­tions for things like the Mac­Dow­ell Colony and cross­ing your fin­gers that you will be one of the 1% select­ed. This way can lead to a lot of headache, and, quite frankly, heartache.

But we’re entre­pre­neurs, remem­ber? We can make our own things hap­pen!

OK, so here’s what you do:

  1. Find a group of artists in your com­mu­ni­ty or in online forums/social media who also need a retreat.
  2. Pick a great spot to paint in.
  3. Pick a time of year that tourists tend not to be there. This will decrease expens­es dra­mat­i­cal­ly.
  4. Do a web search of homes and spaces where you can all stay. The home must have a work­ing kitchen.
  5. Get everyone’s com­mit­ment by col­lect­ing their deposits.
  6. Arrive, get sit­u­at­ed, and start paint­ing.
  7. Enjoy one another’s com­pa­ny, talk about your strug­gles, get good advice, and laugh. A lot.
  8. Depart when it’s time, feel­ing excit­ed to get back to your stu­dio and con­tin­ue with what you learned.

Find a Like-Minded Group of Other Artists

This is eas­i­er than you think. If you’re for­tu­nate enough to have a stu­dio, chances are there are oth­er artists in the same build­ing. Befriend them. Talk to them. Find out what you have in com­mon. Talk about how you want to go to a great place and have a work­ing vaca­tion by paint­ing with oth­er artists. Or, hook up with class­mates from work­shops you might have tak­en. Work­shops are where I have met some of my best artist friends. In fact, my now-good friend Janet, whom I met dur­ing a work­shop 18 months ago, is the one who found the cot­tage pic­tured above. She took bike rides every morn­ing, saw the cot­tage, fell in love with it, and asked two of us if we’d be inter­est­ed in shar­ing it with her for a future retreat. We jumped at the chance.

If you’re in a more iso­lat­ed sit­u­a­tion, join online forums like Wet­Can­vas or Face­book groups like Artists’ Tips & Tricks (or, sim­ply type in “artists” in your Face­book search box, and you’ll see a lot of groups–just choose whichev­er you’re inter­est­ed in) or local plein-air groups. (Mine is NH Plein Air, and it is full of won­der­ful artists who get togeth­er in dif­fer­ent loca­tions and paint. Just make sure your group is mod­er­at­ed by some­one expe­ri­enced and trust­wor­thy so you’re not inun­dat­ed with use­less infor­ma­tion or “spon­sored” ads.) Make sure to post com­ments and be gen­uine and sup­port­ive of oth­ers in the com­mu­ni­ty, because, just as in real life, peo­ple respond more pos­i­tive­ly to those who dis­play “good friend” behav­ior. Before you know it, you’ll find your­self con­nect­ing with artists whose work you respond to, and you’ll find that for the most part, artists tend to be gen­er­ous-spir­it­ed peo­ple who like to help one anoth­er out on the jour­ney. This is your lifeblood, your gold­mine. Nev­er take it for grant­ed, and make sure to nur­ture it whol­ly.

Let these peo­ple know you want to set up a retreat and see how many are inter­est­ed. Three is prob­a­bly your min­i­mum num­ber to make it work.

Photo of backyard facing Pilgrim Lake and dunes in Truro.

The view from the back of our cot­tage. There were love­ly bush­es with fall col­ors, backed by Pil­grim Lake and dunes that faced the ocean side.

Pick a Great Spot to Paint In

To keep down on trans­porta­tion costs, it works best if the loca­tion is with­in dri­ving dis­tance for every­one. I pre­fer it to be with­in 4 or 5 hours’ trav­el time. It might be less or more for you or your group. You decide.

Since I live in New Eng­land, I’m for­tu­nate to have access to many dif­fer­ent beau­ti­ful loca­tions. This past trip was to Truro, on the Out­er Cape. I’m talk­ing with friends about anoth­er to Port Clyde, ME, next year. Oth­er places I’d love to go would be Ver­mont or the White Moun­tains, or the Lakes Region of New Hamp­shire, or Aca­dia Nation­al Park or Deer Isle, ME. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less!

Pick an Off-Season Time of Year

This is key. Rates can triple or quadru­ple in some loca­tions dur­ing what’s called “high sea­son.” For instance, I know a motel in Bar Har­bor, ME that charges $30 a night before July 1 or after Octo­ber 1. Dur­ing high sea­son, it goes up to $90. Same motel. Same ameni­ties. Dif­fer­ent time of year.

Of course, you want to sched­ule the trip when weath­er con­di­tions are good for paint­ing on loca­tion if you do plein air, or find a place that either allows peo­ple to paint indoors or has a stu­dio space for this kind of thing (some camps with com­mon big rooms or artist colony spaces that close down for cer­tain times of the year are good options, or you could find a rentable stu­dio space from artists’ asso­ci­a­tions and stay in a sep­a­rate motel, B&B, cot­tage, what­ev­er).

Do a Web Search for Possible Places to Stay

Some great sites to vis­it are Air BnB, VRBO, Home­away, and BnB Find­er. You can also look for Groupon dis­count spe­cials, vis­it sites like Tri­pAd­vi­sor, or sim­ply type in a Google search like “vaca­tion rentals dis­count” along with the loca­tion you’re inter­est­ed in. For instance, I just did a search on Groupon and found a charm­ing inn in the White Moun­tains for $56 a night. It’s still beau­ti­ful in New Eng­land and not too cold to paint yet. If I hadn’t just gone to the Cape, I’d sure love to stay there.

You’ll get the best deals if you can find a home or cot­tage and split the rental fee with two or more oth­er peo­ple. Make sure, though, that you read how many beds are real­ly avail­able. Many places will use the term “sleeps,” as in “sleeps 4,” when what that means is there are two full- or queen-sized beds that peo­ple share. If you don’t want to share a bed, make sure you check how many bed­rooms there are, as well as the num­ber and size of the beds in each room. Many places will also allow you to bring an air mat­tress if you have peo­ple who don’t mind doing that.

Also, you MUST have a work­ing kitchen if you want to save mon­ey! And by that, I mean it must have a refrig­er­a­tor and stove, prefer­ably with a microwave as well. We had no microwave in the place we just stayed, but it didn’t mat­ter so much. You could pos­si­bly also get away with cool­ers and no fridge if nec­es­sary, but you must have a stove! That way, you can pre­pare meals cheap­ly, because you’re not buy­ing expen­sive, pre-pack­aged foods or hav­ing to dine out. I like to do my gro­cery shop­ping at home before I leave, too, because I know where all the dis­count gro­cery stores are. In a tourist loca­tion, you pay more for gro­ceries the way you pay more for every­thing else.


I like the sys­tem of hav­ing a dif­fer­ent per­son be respon­si­ble for din­ner for each night we stay some­where. (Break­fasts and lunch can be up to indi­vid­u­als, or you might decide to split these as well.) Per­son­al­ly, I’m a bit of a food­ie, and I love to cook, so I enjoy fig­ur­ing out an easy, healthy, eco­nom­i­cal meal to make. Oth­ers might pre­fer to order piz­za on their night. It’s all good. But when you divvy up the respon­si­bil­i­ty, it eas­es the bur­den on all, and it brings every­one in to par­take in cama­raderie and grat­i­tude when meals are shared togeth­er. All of that leads to a won­der­ful time. Plus, there’s none of that awk­ward­ness of hav­ing to split a check and make sure everyone’s pay­ing their fair share of tax and tip!

Collect Deposits

This is impor­tant. Peo­ple tend to keep their com­mit­ments when they have to pay for some­thing up front. Make clear that once they’re in, they’re in, because it’s not fair or right to stick oth­ers with hav­ing to cough up a big­ger share of the bill if they back out. You can have them send checks to you or, bet­ter yet, col­lect the mon­ey through Pay­pal or Square. Both are easy to set up accounts with, and both are secure sys­tems to take cred­it and deb­it card pay­ments with (Pay­pal even takes eChecks). Pay­ments go straight to your bank account, and both Pay­pal and Square will walk you and those who pay you through the process.

Arrive, Get Situated, and Start Painting

It’s a good idea to make a rough plan/schedule for every­one to fol­low. Have break­fast, paint in the morn­ing togeth­er, break for lunch, do a group cri­tique in the afternoon/early evening, have din­ner, social­ize for the rest of the night, for instance. When every­one knows they’re part of a “tribe,” and everyone’s par­tak­ing in the same sched­ule and rit­u­al, the group bonds, and every­one has a much more enrich­ing expe­ri­ence.

It’s also a good idea to go over ground rules for house behav­ior. Some land­lords have strict leas­es that must be adhered to, and some who are on the retreat might not have the same bound­aries about clean­ing up that oth­ers do. (For exam­ple, is every­one expect­ed to do their own dish­es after a meal, or is this a task that can be grouped and assigned? Where do bath tow­els get hung? Do gro­ceries have to be labeled, or does every­one have a share and share alike pol­i­cy? That kind of thing.) When every­one fol­lows expect­ed pro­ce­dures, every­one ben­e­fits, and stress is reduced.

Enjoy One Another’s Company

To me, this is the most impor­tant “rule.” Artist retreats are not just about paint­ing. They’re about shar­ing strug­gles and tips, get­ting advice from those who have found solu­tions, talk­ing about fears, sup­port­ing one anoth­er. When we have a com­mu­ni­ty we belong to, we tend to suc­ceed in our pro­fes­sion­al endeav­ors. Use the retreat to nur­ture you in every way, and make sure you do your part to help oth­ers as well. Laugh­ing is a require­ment. We artists need a sense of humor, after all. If we can’t laugh at our­selves and have fun, we might as well hang it up. Retreats can be a place where you make life­long friends. They are price­less in that regard.

Depart When It’s Time

You’ll want to share ground rules about this as well. Make sure everyone’s in on what needs to be done to clean the place up when it’s time to go, and divvy up who’s respon­si­ble for doing what. Be crys­tal clear on the time that every­one needs to leave.

If you can have a com­mu­ni­ty break­fast the morn­ing of depar­ture to talk about high­lights and wish each oth­er well, it’s a great way to wind down. If depar­ture time is too ear­ly for that, make sure to do it dur­ing din­ner or social time the night before. This part of the rit­u­al is extreme­ly impor­tant. Ask oth­ers to share what they plan to do when they get back to their stu­dios. Has the retreat giv­en them new ideas or tech­niques to try?

Last­ly, see if any­one else would like to take up the role of Retreat Leader for the next retreat. Shar­ing this respon­si­bil­i­ty is also impor­tant so no one burns out. You’ll find that some are bet­ter leaders/organizers than oth­ers, but it’s always best to share the load as much as pos­si­ble. Make a game plan to be in touch for the next one, wish each oth­er well, and be on your way, ener­gized and excit­ed to move for­ward with all that you’ve gained from the expe­ri­ence.


Those are gen­er­al bits of advice I can offer based on my own expe­ri­ence, which, after four or five retreats now, has been noth­ing but pos­i­tive. I have made won­der­ful friends, improved my paint­ing, and been able to go to some incred­i­ble loca­tions I will nev­er for­get. In the future, I hope to expand by arrang­ing a retreat to Italy, France, or Ire­land. That’s a whole nother ball of wax, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned being an Art­pre­neur, it’s that when I want to do some­thing enough, I can make it hap­pen.

If you have tips to share about cre­at­ing eco­nom­i­cal and suc­cess­ful artist retreats, I’d love to hear them as well. We’re in it togeth­er, after all!


By |2017-03-02T20:20:58+00:00October 14th, 2014|Art Retreats, Artist Tips, The Artist's Life|2 Comments

About the Author:


  1. ARH October 28, 2014 at 7:43 am - Reply

    Great arti­cle Dawn.

    • Dawn Boyer October 28, 2014 at 8:08 am - Reply

      Thanks, Annie. Glad you found the infor­ma­tion help­ful!

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Use coupon code YES2ART2015 for free shipping and 15% off

Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.