Founded in 1900 by the financier Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina, herself a poet, Yaddo is an artists' community 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 media: choreography, film, literature, musical composition, painting, performance art, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and video. Artists may apply individually or as members of collaborative teams of two or three persons. They are selected by panels of other professional artists without regard to financial means. Residencies last from two weeks to two months and include room, board, and studio.
Left without immediate heirs by the deaths of their four young children, the Trasks decided to bequeath their home in Saratoga Springs, New York, to future generations of writers, composers, painters, and other creative artists. In a vision, Katrina Trask saw generations of talented men and women yet unborn walking the lawns of Yaddo, "creating, creating, creating." In the founding document sent to Yaddo's first group of trustees, the Trasks set out their hopes for Yaddo's future and their sense of who the estate would serve: artists of promise.
The results of the Trasks' legacy have been historic. John Cheever once wrote that the "forty or so acres on which the principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community and perhaps the world." Collectively, artists who have worked at Yaddo have won 71 Pulitzer Prizes, 29 MacArthur Fellowships, 68 National Book Awards, 42 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, 52 Whiting Writers' Awards, a Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976), and countless other honors. Many books by Yaddo authors have been made into films. Visitors from Cheever's day include Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes, Alfred Kazin, Ulysses Kay, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Katherine Anne Porter, Mario Puzo, Clyfford Still, and Virgil Thomson.
Artists of similar brilliance come to Yaddo today - choreographers, filmmakers, and performance artists, along with those working in more traditional forms. All are chosen by panels of their peers for residencies lasting from two weeks to two months. As always, Yaddo supports the process of creativity without regard to fashion, commerce, or personal means.
For the complete roster of artists who have been in residence at Yaddo, click here.
Some believe that the land itself at Yaddo is the source of mystical creative power. The property on which Yaddo now stands previously housed a farm, gristmill, and tavern operated by Jacobus Barhyte, a Revolutionary War veteran. Many well-known writers of the 1830s and 1840s dined at Barhyte's tavern, among them Edgar Allan Poe, who is said to have written at least part of "The Raven" on a visit there.
When Spencer and Katrina Trask bought the property in 1881, naming it "Yaddo" at their small daughter's suggestion, they continued the tradition of entertaining an eclectic group of houseguests. To the Trasks, Yaddo provided less an escape from city life than an entrance into a better world. For Katrina in particular, Yaddo was both a spiritual and physical kingdom. The Yaddo Mansion, completed in 1893 less than two years after a winter fire destroyed the original house, was the scene of famous house parties attended by artists, composers, statesmen, and industrialists.
After the deaths of their children, the Trasks agonized over the eventual fate of their beloved estate. Describing the solution that came to her in a vision Katrina wrote later that "an unseen hand seemed laid upon me." The result was one of the most courageous and imaginative examples of American philanthropy. With a small circle of close friends and advisors, the Trasks incorporated Yaddo formally in 1900. Their letter of intent best describes their purpose:
In order to insure for Yaddo a larger influence and...in the hope that it may continue as a practical force in the world for all time, we desire to found here a permanent Home to which shall come from time to time...authors, painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists both men and women, few in number but chosen for their creative gifts and besides and not less for the power and the will and the purpose to make these gifts useful to the world...It is such as these whom we would have enjoy the hospitality of Yaddo, their sole qualification being that they have done, are doing, or give promise of doing good and earnest work.
After Spencer Trask died in a train wreck in 1909 and Katrina Trask died in 1922, the noted philanthropist George Foster Peabody - a lifelong friend of the family and Katrina's husband in the last year of her life - hired a young woman named Elizabeth Ames to be Executive Director, and in 1926 she welcomed to Yaddo in its present form the first group of creative artists. Mrs. Ames guided Yaddo's first half-century, adapting Katrina's vision to the times.
Since then, nearly 5,500 creative artists have walked Katrina's woods and found the peace and guaranteed privacy necessary for creative work. Though much has changed since 1900, Yaddo's mission - to provide artists with uninterrupted time to work, good working conditions, and a supportive community - has remained central to its operation, and in recent years the Board of Directors had reasserted Yaddo's original commitment to aesthetic daring, social egalitarianism, internationalism, and the support of artists at political risk.
Each year since 1912, Yaddo has presented the Yaddo Medal, crafted by Tiffany & Company, to a young man and woman in the graduating class at Saratoga Springs High School to honor their academic achievement and personal character. Read more about the Yaddo Medal and view a list of winners here.
For more about the history of Yaddo, visit the Yaddo Archives at The New York Public Library.
Inevitably, the endowment created by the Trasks has proven insufficient for contemporary needs. Yaddo is supported now largely by contributions from private individuals and organizations. More than a third of this support comes from artists who themselves have been guests at Yaddo.
Today, Yaddo offers residencies to professional creative artists from all nations and backgrounds working in one or more of the following media: choreography, film, literature, musical composition, painting, performance art, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and video. While the work made at Yaddo today reflects contemporary sensibilities, styles, and forms, the fundamental mission that sustains this achievement has remained constant.
Photo credit: Janet Loughrey (top left photograph)