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Farewell, Edenfred

Editor's Notes
Farewell, Edenfred

With the end of 2010 came the closing of a venerable artist residency and community center pivotal to artistic and cultural life Wisconsin. Established in 2004 by the nonprofit Terry Family Foundation, Edenfred was dedicated to the development of the arts and culture with a special interest in encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue. Edenfred (fredmeans "peace" in Norwegian), a gracious 1916 Georgian-style mansion in the Highlands neighborhood of Madison, was established to provide creative artists uninterrupted time to work in a peaceful setting.

Much of what made Edenfred's programs successful was the energy and unending creativity of executive director David Wells. Wells, a Wisconsin native, pursued interdisciplinary interests as an exhibiting artist, consultant, gallerist/curator, and arts administrator for over thirty years in both the business and nonprofit sectors before helping to create Edenfred's residency programs. 

Wells designed the Resident Fellows Program as a two-to-eight-week retreat experience for artists to pursue personal creative opportunities while sharing collegial interaction with a small group of artists.

In addition to their Resident Fellows Program, Edenfred hosted a Day Fellows Program designed to offer local creative artists the opportunity to work at the Edenfred mansion during the day; Wells also worked closely with local and regional nonprofit arts groups to provide residencies that allow groups to undertake projects they otherwise could not afford and collaborated with several other organizations to provide residencies as awards. Wells estimates that approximately four hundred residents have at one time lived at Edenfred.

Edenfred and Wells also organized and played host to a series of Conversations at Edenfred for Wisconsin art curators, regional choreographers, and organizations who met on issues as diverse as Native American literature and understanding our regional creative ecology. The Wisconsin Academy held staff retreats at Edenfred, and first-place winners of the annualWisconsin People & Ideas/Wisconsin Book Festival short story and poetry contests were treated to a one-week residency and encouraged to generate new works while there. Wells also donates his time as an advisor to the Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery.

As Edenfred executive director Wells has worked with many other arts organizations, too, including the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison Opera, Madison Ballet, Madison Repertory Theater, Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Wisconsin/Hessen (Germany) Writers Exchange, Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission, Wisconsin Wrights: New Play Project, Council for Wisconsin Writers, Overture Center for the Arts, Wisconsin Arts Board , Sundance Cinemas, and various programs of the UW-Madison. 

Due to a legal dispute with the City of Madison, Edenfred shuttered its doors in mid-December. According to a September 22, 2010, article by Lindsay Christians in The Capital Times, the announcement of Edenfred's impending closure came after almost a year-long legal struggle regarding the residency's property tax exemption application status. "The house is in a part of the city that doesn't allow commercial buildings," said city attorney Michael May. The city presented two options: close or be brought up to commercial code by making extensive renovations to stairwells and exits and installing a sprinkler system.

"The city deemed the Edenfred residency usage commercial; there is no local precedent for Edenfred--it is the only arts residency in Madison," says Wells. "We [were] caught in a bureaucracy that it costs a great deal to fight, [and] spending many thousands of dollars on a legal battle is not a good use of the Foundation's resources when that money could be spent on the arts."

Letters of support from artists, resident fellows, cultural and business leaders, and legislators alike flowed in to Wells and the Terry Family Foundation after the decision to close Edenfred was announced in September of 2010. A letter from Appleton poet and Edenfred resident fellow Cathryn Cofell perhaps best articulates the sense of loss and helplessness the arts community--and I, too--felt upon hearing the news:

To me, David Wells and Edenfred will be intertwined; you made that place and the outcomes of all our visits what they were. It was you who brought life to that building, and you who will bring life to whatever next venture you seize upon. I hope, for our sake, you don't leave Wisconsin. … You are far too valuable for this state to lose!


Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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