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January 09, 2019

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"Since I am a dreamer that believes in magic, I dreamed of starting a residency one day somewhere in the world. I did not know when and where, I just knew I wanted that next."

What is the road between a first idea and the launch of a new residency program? In LAUNCH PAD we are checking in with our Emerging Program Institute alumni to hear about the challenges, triumphs, and many surprises on the road to launching and the first year of running a residency.

This month we caught up with Carla Gullichsen, founder of Varda Artists Residency - an emerging program on a Sausalito houseboat.

Can you tell us where the idea to create a residency on a houseboat originated?

In 2014 I went to the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Australia. In the early 1930’s, John and Sunday Reed bought a large property and turned it into an artists residency. Today, what once was a small artist's residency became a respectable Museum that hosted some of the most important Australian artists of all time. The story really inspired me.


 John Reed (holding Min the cat), Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan c.

I was invited to the SS Vallejo in 2013. I arrived there in 2014.

Naturally, the more I learned about the boat’s history the more it felt like it was the right place to start an artists residency.

One day I watched Agnes Varda’s documentary Oncle Yanko. This documentary features her strange uncle who used to live in the houseboat. At this stage all the ghosts of the boat begged me to turn it into the place it once used to be: a floating temple of ideas and creativity.


Still from Uncle Yanko (1967).

The Varda Artists Residency is by invitation-only. What can you tell us about your selection process? Why does this model feel like the best fit for you?

Living in a historical houseboat is not for everyone. Our setting is very unique. The boat is old and delicate; it is also a home, there are the main reasons why we keep our location private.

We are also an unusual residency because we don’t have a venue or open public studio visits where we can show what is made at the boat. When applicants come knowing - a priori-  that the boat does not work as a public venue, then there is less of a chance for disappointment.


Photo taken by Thane Lund - past AiR (2016).

We work mostly on a recommendation system. Perhaps similar to how CCAA (Uli Sigg) works: artists are nominated by organizations to apply.

We have paired up with art organizations locally and internationally: The Lab (SF), Pioneer Works (NY), ARTSPACE (Auckland, New Zealand), The Composing Rooms (Berlin), McCahon Residency (Titirangi, New Zealand). They suggest a shortlist of artists to us based on our ideal applicant’s profile. They also take the time to explain to the applicant what our residency is about. Each recommended artist fills out an application. We evaluate each application carefully with a diverse team of people who are familiar with the boat and the program. If the applications are strong, we then have a video call or face to face interview with the applicant. In so far, the recommendation system has been very efficient and fruitful. I can’t imagine opting for an open call system. Our team is too small for going through such random and time consuming process fast enough.

We also do a little bit of curatorial work on our own to keep the program as diverse as possible. This strategy sometimes works.


Photo taken by Thane Lund - past AiR (2016).

Going into your second year of residencies, what challenges have arisen? Any pleasant surprises?

We have faced some challenges that became great opportunities for learning. Most residencies in the world are production focus and push artists to give talks and engage with a lot of strangers. We are the opposite of that: we want artists to decompress and have a good time. Although, we do feel very happy when great works are being made on the boat. This system works with most of the artists that come to our houseboat, but some artists find this system difficult. We have made this information more clear for future applicants to avoid disappointment.

Another issue is how rustic the boat is (leaks during the rainy season, cold in winter, hot in summer). Not everyone enjoys living in an old houseboat. Again, the key is to make this as clear as possible from the beginning.  

Running the residency has been very rewarding. Most artists become close friends and stay in touch with us over time. We keep our doors open for those past AiR who want to return.

Do you anticipate any changes in the next few years? What are your hopes for the future?

I hope we can develop more partnerships with art organizations in the Bay Area. I would also like to formalize some ongoing informal partnerships we have going on with some Japanese organizations. Finally, I would like to find a way to bring African and Latin American artists to the boat.

I also hope to get funding for running the residency in 2017.