Yaddo’s Elaina Richardson on Reshaping a Community

by Victoria Jones

Posted May 23, 2022

Yaddo is a retreat for artists located on a 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Its mission is to nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment. Yaddo offers residencies to professional creative artists from all nations and backgrounds working in one or more of the following disciplines: choreography, film, literature, musical composition, painting, performance art, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and video. 

Collectively, Yaddo artists have won 81 Pulitzer Prizes, 31 MacArthur Fellowships, 69 National Book Awards, and a Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel for Literature in 1976). Today, Yaddo is led by Elaina Richardson, formerly a journalist and editor-in-chief, and an incredible source of inspiration.  

In this month’s At the Helm, we talked with Elaina about how she is steering Yaddo and how her leadership is evolving.

Victoria: Elaina, it has been a wild ride for so many organizations these last two years – more so, I imagine, for Yaddo’s world-renowned in-house residency program for artists.  How are you feeling today?

Elaina: Well that is a rather big question! And an interesting one as we prepare to open our doors for our first full-capacity program in a long time. We’re exhilarated by that – we did it! We kept our artists, Board members, and friends engaged. We, as you would expect and as so many other arts organizations did, got quite creative in helping individual artists create their own community and quasi-residency – in place. For almost a year, we did host very small “pods” of artists with protocols in place to help keep them and our staff safe. Great work happened. And thanks to some incredible donors and a lot of encouragement, we are reasonably financially whole and with a lot to look forward to.

You know, it would be easy to say it has been tough, terrible, wrenching these last couple of years – and on many days this would be true. Deciding that we had no choice but to furlough half our staff was one of the toughest days of my life. Artists truly fell off the money cliff at alarming rates during COVID. But at my core, I am an optimist. So, most days I prefer to think of this “pause” as an opportunity to reflect on what we do, how we do it, and whether we are as strong as we can be for our future. 

What did you discover when you looked in the mirror?

Well, we saw some things that we liked very much and no surprise, also areas where we had some work to do. Honestly, I think that grappling with issues of equity and fairness, what is core to our mission and why, and all of the self-examination that we chose to do during this time was so important for us, just as important as how we dealt with COVID. 

One thing that we really liked upon examination is that our mission remains as true and important now as it ever has. We were glad that we did not succumb to mission creep, as so many nonprofits did or had no choice but to do. This was wonderfully reaffirming. We did not need to reinvent ourselves!

Where we did decide to really dig in was around equity and fairness. I was determined that we would not be defensive. We all knew that we could do better, that the residency field as a whole could do better. So, we took the gift of time, if you will, to deeply dig into our data and apply some close scrutiny to our application process, and to our outreach and selection process. We are a thin organization. We don’t often have the opportunity to be so focused on data. 

And what did you decide?

We decided that what we could do better was to strengthen the applicant pool, to double down on actions that ultimately influence who applies. What does it really mean to be “working at a mature level?” How could we better identify who is really likely to work well in a community of others? What would most encourage those who might not be applying or applying unsuccessfully? 

We have determined that the power of a direct invite and of highly curated “magnet guests” is one tool that we can use effectively. And we have really changed our thinking about how to define mature work. This shift puts more pressure on already frayed edges, but we will figure it out! We also determined to make residency feel less daunting to artists who might be afraid to apply by doing some things to model what residency is really about.

Like others, we decided that some of the new skills and habits we developed during COVID had legs far beyond. We will keep a hybrid model for our Board and other meetings, for example. We had “cheers” every night at 5:00 – join if you want. It was fantastic! Sometimes we celebrated a small moment, occasionally something quite significant. Artists as a whole were giving us something to look forward to on dark days. We will keep some version of Cheers.

As you open the doors to your first full residency, what differences have you seen?

We have 57 residency promises in back log that we are committed to honoring from those we had accepted pre-COVID, and we had almost 1500 new applicants to review, the most we’ve ever had in our history. It is good and challenging. We are going to forego August admissions this year to help us adjust to these new realities, and we have some of the same staffing concerns that everyone else is feeling. Thankfully, all our former staff returned post furlough. The generosity of our supporters is seeing us through. I am feeling grateful.

Because these last two years have been so formative for leaders, what have you learned about yourself?

I think what has happened for me is more about validating and testing what I already knew about myself. I thrive on adrenaline. I do not like feeling trapped. I like rolling up my sleeves and making something happen. I could not always work this way during COVID.

One thing I am testing myself on is my assumption that face time – in person face time – was critical to success. I am trying to rebel against this as a measure of success, for myself and others. I’ve become more empathetic and flexible. I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m working on it.

Last thoughts?

There were silver linings – personally and professionally. I am so incredibly proud of everyone around me, and I’m proud of myself and some of what I’ve worked through. Our people are safe. We are solid on staffing (as much as we can be). No one stepped back, everyone stepped up. Our budget is more aspirational than it has ever been.

Above all, I think this:  Art saved many of us, if you will; and I love that.

There is a phrase by John Milton in his masque “Comus.” It reads, “Turn forth her silver lining on the night, And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.” I hold this thought very close. It helped things not be as scary as they might have been. 

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.