In its 31st year history, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program has provided over 1,900 artist residencies, and currently serves approximately 80 artists each year – all free of charge. It is the largest artist residency program in the West and considered among the best in the country. Each year dozens of artists from across the United States, and many from around the world, travel to the open hillsides and deep redwood forests of SMIP Ranch to take inspiration from the beautiful surroundings and seek refuge from the distractions of the world to concentrate on their creative projects. While in residence, the artists work in peaceful isolation within a supportive community of other artists and Program staff. They thrive on the intellectual stimulation and the collegial interaction in this intimate artist community.
The Djerassi Program was founded in 1979 by Stanford University Professor Emeritus Dr. Carl Djerassi, who along with his colleagues at Syntex Corporation, became the first to synthesize a practical oral contraceptive in the early 1950s. In the 1960s proceeds from the rise of Syntex stock enabled Djerassi to purchase a large tract of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains west of Stanford, which he called SMIP (Syntex-Made-It-Possible) Ranch, but in 1970 renamed Sic manebimus in pace (Thus we'll remain in peace) . On this spectacular property with its breath-taking views of the Pacific Ocean and its quiet solitude, Djerassi built a home, as did his children, Pamela and Dale.
The origins of the Djerassi Program lie in a personal tragedy for the Djerassi family. In 1978 Pamela Djerassi, herself a poet and painter, took her own life. Soon after, while visiting Florence, Italy, with Diane Middlebrook (later his wife) and trying to come to terms with his daughter’s death, Djerassi and Middlebrook considered the patronage that the Medici family had given to artists of their time and how he might, in some small way, be able to extend his support to contemporary women artists. Working at first through Stanford’s Center for Research on Women, Djerassi provided a stipend and began a selection process.
In 1979 Tamara Rikman, a graphic artist from Jerusalem, arrived to spend a year living and working at Pamela’s beautiful, but isolated house and studio that are now the Program’s administrative offices. In all, five women were the beneficiaries of this support in the first four years of the endeavor. Much was accomplished artistically, but the women suffered from the isolation and the lack of interaction with their peers. One early resident suggested to Djerassi that the ranch manager’s house and the barn on another part of the property might be converted into living and studio facilities for use by a group of artists.
With the help of his wife, fellow Stanford Professor Diane Middlebrook, Djerassi set out to establish a comprehensive residency program, available to male and female artists in a variety of disciplines. Sculptor George Rickey’s Hand Hollow Artists Foundation in upstate New York was used as a model, and two older established colonies in the East, the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, provided examples and inspiration. An Executive Director, Leigh Hyams, was hired to oversee the work. The cattle barn began a long period of renovations to create new visual and performing artists’ studios and the ranch manager’s house was converted to housing for the artists. In 1982 the Program emerged in a form that would be recognizable today. Successive directors Susan Learned Driscoll, Sally Stillman, Charles Boone, Charles Amirkhanian, and since 1997, Dennis O’Leary, have each made improvements to the facilities and left their own mark on the Program.
With the expansion of the Program, in spite of his sale of the bulk of his extensive art collection, Djerassi’s personal resources were no longer sufficient as the sole source of financial support. Contributions were sought from foundations and individuals interested in underwriting the creativity of artists. In 1994 the Program began the five-year process of conversion from a private family foundation to an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which was realized in 1999.
In the 1990s, activities were introduced to acquaint the public with the Program and its mission. An annual Open House was inaugurated to allow supporters to visit the ranch and artists’ studios, to tour the grounds and enjoy presentations and performances by the artists in residence. Tours of the site-specific sculpture collection on the Program property were introduced and today two types of tours are conducted monthly during the core residency season. Occasional Sunday Salons are presented where alumni artists present their art within an intimate setting. ARTFUL HARVEST is an annual benefit, which features entertainment and a silent auction of works by artist alumni. These and other activities permit the public and Program supporters to glimpse the workings of the Program while sustaining the quiet, retreat-like character of the experience for the artist-in-residence.
In the early 1990s, under the directorship of Charles Amirkhanian, himself a composer, the Program introduced the Other Minds Festival (www.otherminds.org), which showcases the work of leading American and international composers to a Bay Area audience. Prior to three days of Festival performances in San Francisco, Charles invited the ten or so composers to SMIP Ranch for a five-day residency for collegial fellowship, presentations and preparations for their concerts. This convening continues today through the partnership of the Djerassi Program with Other Minds, which make this Festival unique among world-class contemporary music gatherings.
Also in the early 1990s, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program was one of the original thirteen founding members of the Alliance of Artists' Communities (www.artistcommunities.org), a national professional organization dedicated to supporting the field. Now with well over 100 institutional members and many individual supporters, the Alliance is the leading advocacy voice for artist residency programs throughout the world. Djerassi personnel have been involved in Alliance affairs and its governance since its inception.
Of particular significance at the end of the 90s decade was the sale of a Conservation Easement on the DRAP Property to the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) (www.openspacetrust.org). Initiated by trustee Dale Djerassi, and after three years of negotiations, the sale was recorded in November 1999, which sets development limits and protection standards on the property’s natural resources in perpetuity. The proceeds were used to create a “Land and Buildings Endowment,” from which earnings help with care and maintenance of these capital assets. Also in 1999, the Program celebrated its 20th anniversary and, coincidently, the arrival of the 1,000th artist-in-residence.
Up until that time, the Program allowed a few hearty alumni artists to use the Artists' Barn during the winter months to work on special projects, when otherwise the Program had been closed. With the addition of a new insulated roof and other improvements to the structure in 2000, which made it far more habitable in the cold rainy season, this practice became formalized. Today, the Program regularly welcomes alumni who apply for a project-driven "Winter Residency" during December, January and February. These residencies brought the Program to a full calendar of activity enabling it to serve as many as 90 artists each year.
In the first few years of the new century renovation projects began on two of the Program’s buildings. The “Old Barn,” a late-19th century structure, was in a deteriorating state, and in an effort to fortify the building and make it a useful space for artists and other activities, a three-phase plan was developed and, initially, an interior steel frame and a new concrete floor were added. Immediately, it caught the imagination of resident artists and numerous installations, performances, readings and other activities began to occur. Additional work to weatherize the Old Barn is anticipated in the near future. The Program also undertook significant improvements to the Artists’ Barn, which houses the studios and living quarters for the visual and performing artists. Work included structural fortifications, electrical and plumbing upgrades, handicap accessibility and fire safety measures. These Artists’ Barn and Old Barn improvements as well as other infrastructure enhancements enable the Djerassi Resident Artists Program to better serve its artists-in-residence through the coming decades.