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A Utopian Suburb Where Residents Underwrite an Art Residency

Serenbe, a bedroom community of Atlanta with fewer than 500 residents, boasts an ambitious and unconventional artist-in-residence program.

Artist Hannah Israel in her studio at AIR Serenbe (photo by Brandon Hinman, courtesy AIR Serenbe)
Artist Hannah Israel in her studio at AIR Serenbe (photo by Brandon Hinman, courtesy AIR Serenbe)

When Brandon Hinman signed on in 2014 as the first paid staff member for AIR Serenbe, a fledgling artist residency in a tony bedroom community of Atlanta, he wasn’t sure he was the right person for the job. Hinman was not, as he puts it, a “big city art boy” with experience running an art nonprofit. In fact, he had just moved back home to Carrolton, Georgia (25 miles from Serenbe) to work in his family’s real estate development business. After spending his twenties as a private chef and artist — including a stint making the food at Skowhegan — Hinman thought he was going to shelve his creative aspirations for a more practical career.

“If I was going to work for a residency program, I thought it would damn well be far away from Carrolton,” Hinman said. “I thought I would go west, or head back to the northeast. Or give up residencies altogether.”

It turns out, the board of AIR Serenbe (where, full disclosure I had a weekend-long micro-residency in 2015) needed someone just like Hinman: a person interested in the world of artist residencies, a gracious host who can put together a nice dinner, and (vitally) someone experienced in managing construction crews.

The rural cottage studio at AIR Serenbe (photo courtesy AIR Serenbe)
The rural cottage studio at AIR Serenbe (photo courtesy AIR Serenbe)

“At first, AIR Serenbe paired people’s second homes with artists,” Hinman explained. “Who has an empty guest room and would like to host an artist for a few weeks? Then we partnered with Rural Studio out of Alabama to build artist cottages.”

This sort of collaboration with a splashy organization like Rural Studio could only happen after AIR Serenbe grew tremendously as an organization. Four years ago, the residency’s budget was $17,000; now, it’s $250,000. Under Hinman’s leadership, AIR Serenbe has built its first artist housing, begun a series of public dinners with artists, and brought the program up to speed with more established artist residencies.

The bucolic landscape surrounding Serenbe (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The bucolic landscape surrounding Serenbe (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Serenbe is a peculiar community about 45 minutes south of downtown Atlanta that has sprung up in the last decade. Developed according to the principles of New Urbanism, Serenbe features a pastiche of architectural styles — brownstones, bungalows, Belgian castles, and more — arranged into an idyllic village in semi-rural Georgia. Green space abounds, with plenty of hiking trails, waterfalls, and woodland meadows. However, there are no typical suburban yards in Serenbe; here, green space is public space, houses are right up next to each other, and the sidewalk is feet away from the front steps — there are no McMansions on huge lots.

Steve and Marie Nygren, Atlanta restauranteurs, purchased the land Serenbe sits on in the mid-1990s, started a bed and breakfast, and eventually developed the area into a full-fledged community. An organic farm supplies food for Serenbe’s three restaurants, as well as for the “Art Over Dinner” series. Another feature that sets this 400-person community apart from other country towns is its range of cultural offerings, which includes an award-winning theater, a ballet company, and the artist residency program. All property and home sales in Serenbe require a contribution to the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture, and the Environment; anytime a home is sold or resold, 1% of the sale price must be contributed to fund arts programming in the community. Every resident literally buys into the arts here.

If Serenbe sounds bougie, that’s because it is. A 900-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom home in the style of Atlanta’s historic shotgun houses typically goes for around $350,000. For a little over $1 million, you could recently have purchased a four-bedroom home with the most beautiful classic Southern porch. Most people move out of the city for more space and a lower cost of living; in Serenbe, you get the opposite. The place certainly feels like an oasis of well-manicured homes and people. Drive a mile out of Serenbe and you’ll see overgrown yards punctuated with banged up pickup trucks rusting away. Serenbe, by contrast, has a Bosch Experience Center and the occasional Lexus-sponsored event. It’s the kind of place where a resident is liable to enjoy their evening tumbler of rosé while relaxing in plush porch swings and chatting with an experimental poet visiting from Brooklyn.

Resident artists in conversation at AIR Serenbe (photo by C. Royal, courtesy AIR Serenbe)
Resident artists in conversation at AIR Serenbe (photo by C. Royal, courtesy AIR Serenbe)

Despite its upper-crust undertones, Serenbe serves an important purpose in sponsoring arts programming. Without Serenbe, the area would be an arts desert with nary a gallery, theater, or performance artist for many, many miles. Instead of some sort of artistic imperialism, where well-meaning artists foist their creative wares on communities that maybe didn’t want them in the first place, the people in Serenbe actually want this art.

“Ninety-seven percent of our budget comes from contributed revenue,” says Hinman. “Of that amount, 76% is from Serenbe Institute and Serenbe residents or property owners, and 24% comes from from outside sources.”

Still, all are welcome at art events in Serenbe. While the village’s residents fund the bulk of the local programming, there simply aren’t enough people in the community to fill up all the seats. Serenbe ends up drawing in people from Atlanta and neighboring suburbs who might typically attend similar events at the High Museum of Art or the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center. Essentially, Serenbe residents underwrite the cost of programming for outsiders to enjoy. Ultimately, these arts events drive the local economy and encourage development as more people discover the hamlet.

An Art Over Dinner event at AIR Serenbe (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
An Art Over Dinner event at AIR Serenbe (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This is all very different from the experience of residencies like Yaddo, MacDowell, or Djerassi, where community involvement seems to be seen as a kind of necessary evil to fund the program. At Serenbe, the community defines the programming because it helps to make the community a more desirable place to live. Hinman realized that the traditional residency model of “artist in seclusion working on their own” didn’t resonate with funders (in and out of Serenbe) looking for artists to provide a more public product, so he shifted his attention toward a project called “Focus Fellowships.” AIR Serenbe links the interests of funders directly to themed residencies, and as a result has brought in artists creating work for children, spoken word artists, and artists focused on health and wellness. Each fellow receives a $1,500 stipend for the month-long residency.

When potential funders approached him, Hinman said, they would often express interest in a niche field or medium. He saw an opportunity there to gear residencies around exactly what funders wanted to support. Inadvertently, this also created more opportunities for public programming.

“I think fundraising for an ephemeral program like an artist residency that may lack a clear end product can be tricky,” Hinman said. “It’s important to position the residency experience as a human experience. This is an investment in the best and brightest minds in our country.”

Another program that sets AIR Serenbe apart is its family residency option. Most residencies, at least the reputable kind that are grant-funded, only allow the artist to attend by herself. There’s simply not enough room for families at most residencies. This ends up causing many talented artists to miss out on residencies because they can’t be away from their families for prolonged periods. For now, AIR Serenbe is only offering family residencies to alumni of the program, but is considering opening them up to new artists as well.

Artist Peter Happel Christian in his studio at AIR Serenbe (photo courtesy AIR Serenbe)
Artist Peter Happel Christian in his studio at AIR Serenbe (photo courtesy AIR Serenbe)

Paul Villinski was a resident at Serenbe in 2012, and a year later he was invited back, this time with his wife and their 18-month-old son. This summer, the three of them are returning to Serenbe for art-making, hiking, petting farm animals, coffee with locals at the Blue Daisy Cafe, and a Serenbe Playhouse summer camp for their son.

“Most residency programs are not family oriented and discourage or don’t accommodate spouses and children,” the painter Amy Park, Villinski’s wife, said. “These residency programs automatically narrow their pool of applicants to those that are young, childless, and unattached. Residencies become real luxuries for those with families. I don’t apply for residencies that I don’t think can creatively work with my family. I would not be productive in a program that was far away and long term without Lark and Paul. Serenbe has welcomed us all.”

For those without families but different types of attachments, AIR Serenbe lets residents bring their dogs. Adam Frelin, a public artist based in Albany, thought there was no way he could spend a month away from his rat terrier, Pip. The dog-friendly Serenbe community, with its plethora of hiking trails, sealed the deal for him.

Sarah Kay and Mahogany L. Browne perform at AIR Serenbe (photo courtesy AIR Serenbe)
Sarah Kay and Mahogany L. Browne perform at AIR Serenbe (photo courtesy AIR Serenbe)

“What surprised me about Serenbe is how well designed it is in terms of density and architecture,” Frelin said. “This town has a lot more prominence in the residency experience than most other programs. Most residencies are in the country with a town as a backdrop. Here there’s this community that was made from scratch.”

Serenbe is certified by the Alliance of Artist Communities — the gold standard for assuring professional standards in residency programs. Those interested in being residents at Serenbe had better start networking — rather than an application system, it uses a nomination model whereby a national steering committee recommends artists. Hinman said only a small portion of artists actively apply to residency programs, yet many more could benefit.

“At AIR Serenbe, we say we are in the business of nurturing critical moments of imagination,” says Hinman. “When we talk about imaginations, we not only mean those of the visual, literary, and performance artists who pass through our residency program, but also the imaginations of all in our metro/regional community who come in close contact with these artists and their creative processes.”

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