Conceived by American artist and philanthropist Jerome Hill (1905–1972), the Camargo Foundation is a residency for artists, scholars, and thinkers in Cassis, France. Hill became enamored by French culture during numerous visits to Europe with his family. In the 1930s, he purchased property in Cassis, located on the Calanques of the Mediterranean Sea, which is now the grounds of the Camargo Foundation. After fighting in Europe as an American soldier during World War II, Hill made his home on the property, and invited artists and thinkers into this haven to experiment and exchange and present ideas, making it fertile ground for his artist’s life. In the trust documents for the foundation, Hill established two missions: to host in-residence artists, scientists, and writers, and to present to the public the work made by these creatives during the time of their residencies.
Hill’s own creative life was wide-ranging. He studied music and composition at Yale University, painted landscapes and portraits influenced by Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, and engaged in experimental film using techniques such as superimposed image, paint on film, and animation. He completed a number of feature films including Albert Schweitzer (1957), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year. Breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, its mysterious endless horizon, and the magnificent Cap Canaille, a magical rocky peninsula protruding from the sea, all contributed endless inspiration and provided the backdrop for his multidisciplinary works. He inherited family wealth, which came from his grandfather’s establishment of the first railroad networks in the American Midwest and gave him the means to develop the French property. As a native of Minneapolis, and a queer man, Hill found that being an expatriate in France freed him from the social pressures and judgements he faced in America. He discovered his autonomy as he immersed himself in French culture and settled into Cassis with his lover and partner Charles Rydell, with whom he remained until the end of his life. Over the years, Hill’s friends and visitors to Camargo included Brigitte Bardot, Julia Child, Youra Guller, Jonas Mekas, Olivier Messiaen, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Peter Beard, among others.
In 2012, the area surrounding the Camargo Foundation property was demarked as part of the National Park des Calanques, ensuring the preservation of the surrounding ecosystems and wildlife. Thirteen work-live apartments are available at any one time and in 2022, the foundation hosted 62 residents. Amenities include a library with desks overlooking the sea, a music room with equipment, a grand piano and a harpsichord, as well as a classical music and jazz vinyl collection. Hill’s paintings are displayed in the halls and rooms of the residency as are select pieces of wooden furniture decorated by members of the Bloomsbury group, who were frequent visitors to Cassis. Hill constructed an outdoor amphitheater modeled on the ancient one in Delphi, Greece, with the sea as a spectacular backdrop for the stage. The setting is unique and breathtakingly gorgeous, yet Hill conceived it as a humble place. Buildings and apartments are designed with materials like stones, pebbles, ceramic tiles local to Cassis, and modest, unpretentious wood furniture. Hill envisioned the property as a site to foster interactions, and the terraces and pathways are a summons to meander, to run into someone, and to have a place to sit.
Hill established the Camargo Foundation in 1967 and the first residents arrived in the fall of 1971. When he passed away in 1972, he bequeathed the property to be set up as a residency for artists and scholars according to stipulations in his will. Residents stay in the live-work apartments for up to three-month periods to pursue ongoing creative projects. In the first few decades, most residents were white, Anglo-Saxon scholars focusing on French and francophone studies. Some of the most notable late twentieth-century French scholars, literary and cultural critics, and historians, such as Germaine Brée, Victor Brombert, Wallace Fowlie, Philip and Joan Stewart, and Richard Wilbur have spent time at the residency. Artists were occasionally invited in early decades to take residence and focus on their work at the foundation. Early in her career, Chicago-based artist Barbara Cooper (resident, 1992), was eager to experience new ecological landscapes and to study environmental issues. She worked on small studies of local foliage, which then evolved into larger drawings and sculptures once she returned to the United States. New York artist Joyce Kozloff (resident, 2004) painted maps of Mediterranean islands on unpainted Venetian masks during her time at Camargo, which were later exhibited in Venice in her exhibition at the Spazio Thetis, Joyce Kozloff: Voyages + Targets (2006). She recalls being moved by the colors of the ochre quarries while visiting nearby Roussillon in the Luberon region and standing in front of the Eden theater in La Ciotat where the Lumière brothers developed the invention of cinema and first showed Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895).
In 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, the Camargo Foundation found support from the Board of Trustees at its sister organization in Minnesota also founded by Hill, the Jerome Foundation. From 2011–14, the Camargo Foundation closed as it underwent a period of reckoning, re-examining, and restructuring. Camargo was affiliated with the Jerome Foundation from 2013–17, which allowed it to relaunch as the Camargo Foundation of the present day. Its board and governance became independent, and in 2017, Julie Chénot was hired as Executive Director. This year marked the beginning of significant change for the foundation’s mission and raison d’être, as Chénot’s vision for Camargo not only brought it closer to Hill’s original mission to safeguard this place for artists, thinkers, and scholars, but also to invite residents that prioritize work engaging with the region of the Calanques and the cross-cultural histories of the Mediterranean. It implied welcoming a more diverse and international pool of residents onto its grounds and fostering exchanges. Through Chénot’s efforts and with the support of a reinvigorated board determined to fight for Camargo, the foundation has lately poured its energy into this reinvigorated mission. Calogero Salvo, an artist and filmmaker who has been active on the board for nine years and is its current Chair states that “the notion of freedom and creativity are both interconnected and essential to the creative process. It was with this in mind that the Camargo Foundation became relevant for me as a Trustee, as an artist, and as a gay man.”
The Camargo Foundation is a New York Trust and its board consists of fourteen members dispersed in North America. The board is made up of a 60:40 ratio of creatives (artists, writers, scholars, and residency alumni) to non-artists (finance, law, and business professionals), and chooses board members who can offer connections in the arts, to individual supporters, and can actively contribute to fundraising to the initial small endowment of $7 million. Board members are often alumni residents, have a connection to Minnesota or New York, a penchant for French culture, admire the progressive vision of Hill as a queer multi-disciplinary expatriate, or have simply fallen in love with the incredible beauty of Camargo and the mystery of the Mediterranean landscape. Each board member volunteers their time, network, and experience and contributes a yearly minimum of $10,000 towards the endowment either through their own means or through active fundraising.
To keep the residency operational, the property maintained, and its mission to support artists, scholars, and thinkers possible ongoing fundraising is essential, and increasing the endowment is the board’s priority. Being geographically far from the physical location, in addition to language and cultural differences, present a unique set of challenges to an American board with a location abroad. Even though the board visits annually for a retreat, a French non-profit association, also called Camargo, was created in 2017 to facilitate the foundation’s anchoring in France, Europe, and the Mediterranean. This association currently has seven volunteer members (three of whom also sit on the American board) active in France or the region. Through this organization, the Camargo Foundation is able to secure public and private funding from local, regional, and municipal French and European sources, connect and serve surrounding communities, and have representation on an administrative level that resembles the National and European cultural ecosystem. Their work, with the guidance of the U.S. board, has resulted in the foundation receiving important local awards and landmarks by the French Culture Ministry such as the Maison des Illustres. The association has also created partnerships with local arts organizations, universities, and a larger network of European institutions such as Villa Medici in Rome, which gives Camargo increased and extended support to residents, and visibility in the wider public sphere. Mikael Mohamed, the President of the French non-profit until 2023, chimes in, “it has transformed from a stage theater facing outwards, to an agora, an open forum—which is the crucible of our identity of democracy where we share ideas.”
Chantal Crousel is a volunteer member of the French non-profit. She has contributed to the cultural art scene in France since the founding of her gallery, Galerie Chantal Crousel, in 1980 and observes the need to “recognize Camargo’s international activity in France, and close to the Mediterranean. As a foreign institution, it is vital that the Camargo Foundation opens its doors wide open to the French and to foreign visitors. The very rich program of residencies, workshops, concerts, performances that take place at Camargo are mind opening and bridge making, in a time where nationalist tendencies are emerging worldwide.” Every year public events are now hosted in Camargo’s open-theater and have included performances or presentations by the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, jazz musicians Blick Bassy and Piers Farcini, and “From My Window,” a program celebrating the centennial of the birth of legendary filmmaker, Jonas Mekas.
On the administrative side, the Foundation gives itself permission to experiment, and to adapt to changes felt in their surrounding environment. Chénot, who has lived on the premises for the past nine years in Hill’s former private residence, witnesses these changes firsthand. For example, the South of France has experienced severe drought for several consecutive years due to increased temperatures caused by climate change, and local governments have disallowed the use of water for gardening. The Camargo Foundation has had to accept the loss of foreign vegetation in their gardens in favor of plants more adapted to a Mediterranean climate and find ways to address the new growth of robust root systems eating into the structural foundation of the buildings on the property. These environmental concerns are directly felt, and so they aim to inform and educate the residents, who can in turn contribute to more widespread awareness. In line with the foundation’s flexibility it has also made space for residents coming from regions of conflict, such as Ukrainian poet Ivan Baidak who was a resident in 2022, or those working on specific projects of interest that fit Camargo’s mission even if they don’t fit specific programs.
According to Alice Kaplan, scholar, writer, and faculty in the French Department at Yale University, (resident scholar in 2014 and Board member since 2019), two main issues of concern exist today in francophone research: how the effects of colonialism remain in everyday life even after France’s efforts to decolonize and the current political labor movements in France that contribute to social unrest. “French people organize, they take to the street en masse to make demands—and it’s good for Americans to see that,” says Kaplan. The residency gives time and space for artists, scholars, and thinkers to experiment, reflect, and slow down from their usual life obligations and bring their work into a renewed direction. Board member and playwright Carlyle Brown adds, “You realize that being an artist is absolutely exhausting! It’s such an irrational activity that a place that gives you a moment to just chill, is a big deal.”
In 2014, Kaplan was in the thick of writing her book Looking for the Stranger (2016), which tells the story of how Albert Camus came to write his classic novel of French literature, before starting her residency in August that year. At that point, the conceptual phase of the book was two years in the making and in addition to writing, her time at Camargo was used for reading, consulting the Camus Collection archives in the municipal library in Aix-en-Provence, visiting Camus’s daughter who lives in the region, and wandering through Carnoux-en-Provence, a town known for being a home for repatriating European Algerians following the end of the French-Algerian War in 1962. Bathing in the landscape, facing the Mediterranean, and thus Algeria, brought her closer to Camus, and to the complex history embedded in the Marseille region. Kaplan is now collaborating with Chénot in selecting Algerian writers and poets like Samira Negrouche for Camargo’s Algerian artists’ program. Likewise, research-based artist Huda Takriti (resident, 2023) watched films, and read autobiographies of Algerian women—some of whom she would seek to meet by writing to their publishers—who contributed to the victory in the Algerian War as Freedom Fighters. She also tried to visit the French government’s classified Algeria War archives (which have only been accessible to the public since 2021, but are still limited), on the French colonial presence in Algeria. This research resulted in a multimedia project addressing the female Algerian Freedom Fighters. The richness of experiencing the location firsthand contributed to her research in a way that wouldn’t have been possible where she lives in Vienna.
“What’s important to me is to understand what makes this place specific and what makes sense to address here rather than in another place,” says Chénot. “It’s important to come here and feel the different layers, strata, of history.” The artist and scholar-thinker jury panels are separate and do not interact when applications are being reviewed. Each panel goes through two rounds of selections, first choosing an initial pool of applicants based on their project proposals, and subsequently a discussion determining the applicants who would most benefit from being at Camargo. The chosen residents may reflect the most potential growth to contribute greatly to their disciplines, to have a purpose, and ask pertinent questions, perhaps on a new topic of research or a topic from a different perspective. Chénot’s personal understanding of local francophone culture is notable in her selection of panelists who are sensitive to proposals that contribute to the conversation about Mediterranean art and culture. Camargo is in a location where cultures have converged and conflicted since Roman times; that is the nature of the Mediterranean. Walking around Marseille, the biggest city near Cassis, and its surrounding region, you see the Roman aqueducts, Algeria and Tunisia are both just an overnight ferry ride, and you hear a multitude of languages as you wander the streets.
Poet Jennifer Grotz, who has been invited to Camargo in various capacities and has sat on the artist’s panel says that selecting residents is akin to “assembling an interesting and thoughtful diverse dinner party. How will they be in conversation with each other? Chénot sees this as a place where people come with their own projects, but then are open to a sense of exchange and collaboration.” Numerous residents have described the place as magical, stimulating, and representative of a wide spectrum of disciplines. Chénot’s kitchen has also morphed into a special meeting place for interactions, where artists and staff gather, have a drink or food together, and meet amazing personalities. Musician and composer Fabrizio Cassol has been to the residency about eight times in the past nine years, as Chénot has always made a place for him. His musical activities worldwide and his long-time concerts organized in the opposing cultural poles of Marseille and Aix-en-Provence serve as an important harmonizing bond in the region. He notes, “it is natural for her to invite people, to talk, to exchange, as she has an organic social vision and reality in life. Her kitchen is very important.” At Camargo, he has been exceptionally productive, working on projects such as the arrangement of new albums; organizing Intercultural Medinea Sessions of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence; re-learning how to play the saxophone by playing all of its micro-intervals to create a new technique; and composing an Othello opera. While at Camargo he also collaborated with Alain Platel to compose Requiem pour L. (2018) which introduces international influences into Mozart’s unfinished “Requiem.” In Cassol’s music, we can feel his experiences with cultures worldwide challenge the predominating Eurocentric view of culture and art, which aligns with Camargo’s multi-dimensional Mediterranean spirit.
Projects are frequently chosen based on the creator’s ability and desire to connect with the region, and allow it to influence their line of thinking. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (resident, 2023), is writing a book that is about the notion of hope in transgender history. Their process has included printing out their manuscript, cutting it up, and tacking it to the apartment walls, as well as immersive reading, and having conversations in Marseille about transgender topics. Marzano-Lesnevich has also researched the lives of transgender people who lived in France, and thought about France’s different relationship to gender than what is experienced in the United States. “I’m tapping into a longer line of history about how the past leads to the present, the present speaks to the future,” they share. “I’m working with ghosts, but we will become the ghosts of the future. It can be difficult to think on that sweeping timescale, and connect history to deeply personal stakes, when you’re caught in the rhythms of life at home. It’s a lot easier to do that with the gift of extraordinary time and space.”
Playwrights Carlyle Brown and Chuck Mike have co-curated “Cultural Diaspora” a Camargo program intended to convene Afro-Atlantic artists and thinkers for five weeks, in both 2018 and 2022. Brown and Mike aimed to choose those who have already thought deeply about identity and are capable of making contributions to the group. Brown elaborates that “all Black people in the western world are parents of people enslaved in the Atlantic slave trade and that activity, which is like oil today, financed the western world as we know it. If you see the world in that way, then your identity as a Black person is different, it’s more expansive. Your identity as a Black person is an idea rather than a biological reality as sort of the way you see. What binds you to Blackness, is this idea that is shared with other Black people who may be vastly different, share a lot of things and also don’t share a lot of things, but are bonded by that singular shared idea of an Afro-Atlantic identity.”
Playwright Cassandra Medley (Cultural Diaspora Program resident, 2022) worked on a monologue during her residency that confronted citizens of Cassis, questioning their awareness of other boats in the Mediterranean waters—aside from the yachts and cruise lines—such as those beyond the horizon bearing migrants from desperate situations who are trying to enter Mediterranean waters without passports. The monologue was a continuation of immigration themes found in her one act play Cell (2016). Medley recounts, “my experience at Camargo was life transformative because I was provided with the opportunity to form relationships and connections with artists from the African diaspora. For the first time in 30 years of going to residencies, I was with African descendants and people, as a social group, sharing work and entering into daily amazing conversations of information. As an American Midwesterner from Detroit, I had the opportunity to talk to other people about their lives and their forms of colonization and its legacy.”
Chénot specifies, “this is more a place for experimentation, the initial phases, and raising questions rather than providing answers. It’s for research, process, and less about answering artists needs for production.” Grotz suggests experimentation is about giving oneself permission to change and evolve. For example, she might alter her working process by writing on a typewriter, on notecards, or while sitting on the ground rather than at a desk. “I generate poems in different ways, it’s kind of erotic, something works and then it stops working and then you have to come up with something else that works.” Dancer Preethi Athreya (resident, 2021) has always turned to other mediums like visual art and writing to understand her own medium better. “Experimentation is the ability to make these connects across mediums, to have the freedom to allow the integrity of a process to direct how or what the expression should be finally.” She didn’t see herself as a writer, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a moment where performers lived through existential anxiety and it was difficult to relate to movement, she started writing to replace the moving body. At Camargo that year, she wrote thirteen pieces relaying how certain objects, such as a metal coffee filter, came into her life in Chennai, India by tracing their colonial journeys from India back to a foreign place, how she inherited the object through family or friends (revealing socio-economic realities), and then finally how her own body’s tactile relationship to the object materialized. In 2023, this piece came together as a multidisciplinary exhibition in Chennai titled Inheritage that included dance, audio, and text.
For Indonesian musician, Juan Arminandi (Camargo Fellowship Resident, 2023), experimentation is about finding a new frequency that is closer to the sound of his homeland (an Indonesian frequency) by combining electronic music and building his own invented instruments. He believes musical instruments carry with them a racist history and so invents new ones constructed from materials like wood, metal spoons, and sardine cans. Composer Sivan Eldar (Resident in 2021 and 2023), who has worked on operas at Camargo, reflects that “for me, experimentation is bringing together voices that are different and unfamiliar and putting them in dialogue with one another. It means you cannot work in the way you’re familiar with as it opens everything up and you don’t know where it is going to take us, but you find new ways of working.” She wrote scenes four and seven of her last opera, “Like Flesh” (2022) at Camargo and notes that somehow you could hear in the electronics an element that is constantly the same, but is also moving in different patterns all the time, perhaps an influence from watching the sea from her window at the residency. In October 2023, Eldar will be working with director Peter Sellars and vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy, collaborating on an opera in its infancy. This opera’s initial stages first involved shaping out the form, configuration, size, and orchestration at Villa Albertine in Los Angeles, then engaging in a musical lab with musicians at Villa Medici in Rome. The third step, to be fleshed out at Camargo, will invite a writer to work out the libretto with this collaborative trio.
Chénot recognizes that experimentation needs time to incubate. It can take years before an artist’s findings start to generate new production and innovation. Therefore, Camargo has begun to accommodate some resident artists over an extended period so they can cultivate the seeds of experimentation in a more sustained way. Artists Jenny Polak and Dread Scott (residents, 2017, 2023, and upcoming in 2024) researched the legacy of the slave trade in France and the history of migration in the Mediterranean at various archives throughout the Marseille region, scanning and photographing documents and ephemera they found. Images of slave ships carrying humans to France and airplanes carrying deportees out of the country later found their way into the duo’s lithographic prints made back in New York. In their future stay at Camargo they’re planning to work with Clara Lecadet, a resident scholar who is part of the Camargo’s partner program with the EHESS (École des hautes études en sciences sociales). Together they plan to host events connecting performers, organizers, and speakers on the subject of migrant labor in conjunction with an exhibition of their work.
Nina Simone, who lived in Aix-en-Provence, once famously said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, as far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice. But I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty.” The Camargo Foundation has grown to be an exceptional place for the artist-as-thinker, for the artist to be on par among thinkers and scholars. It has also transformed from a sanctuary for expatriates, to one deeply connected with its region, while also strengthening interdisciplinary cultural ties with the United States and connecting artists and scholars worldwide. This conception and vision, begun by Jerome Hill and carried forward by his foundation, may also influence how artists view themselves, their place, and their contributions to our world today.