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”
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:
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:
- Find a group of artists in your community or in online forums/social media who also need a retreat.
- Pick a great spot to paint in.
- Pick a time of year that tourists tend not to be there. This will decrease expenses dramatically.
- Do a web search of homes and spaces where you can all stay. The home must have a working kitchen.
- Get everyone’s commitment by collecting their deposits.
- Arrive, get situated, and start painting.
- Enjoy one another’s company, talk about your struggles, get good advice, and laugh. A lot.
- 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.
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!
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!