Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Departure: Sarah Workneh is Stepping Down From Co-Director Role at Skowhegan After 14 Years. Her ‘Commitment to the Program Has Been Unwavering’

AFTER 14 YEARS, Sarah Workneh is stepping down from her position as co-director of the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture.

Known as the residency program “founded by artists for artists,” Skowhegan was established in 1946. Located on a 350-acre campus in Madison, Maine, Skowhegan’s nine-week summer program offers a profound educational experience for artists.

Workneh has worked with more than 800 participating artists and 120 faculty artists over the years, overseeing admissions, educational programming, alumni programming, and generally supporting artists in their daily lives on campus, educational experience, and the exploration and expansion of their practices.

“The relationships Sarah has formed with participants over the past fourteen years are generously conspiratorial—less administrative, more involved, deeper, meaningful, intimate, and rare. Founded by artists, for artists, is the motto, but to it Sarah has appended sustained advocacy, often invisible, for the artists and their practice,” artist Dave McKenzie said on behalf of Skowhegan’s Board of Governors.

McKenzie attended Skowhegan in 2000, returned to teach (2011, 2017), and has been serving on the Board of Governors since 2007.

Countless artists, some of the most prominent and insightful figures practicing today, have experienced Skowhegan. The residency is a life-changing opportunity for many artists who return and continue to engage with and support the program throughout their careers.

Alumni include Derrick Adams, Candida Alvarez, Sanford Biggers, Garrett Bradley, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ellen Gallagher, Chase Hall, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Tomashi Jackson, Steve Locke, Lavar Munroe, Rodney McMillian, Sondra Perry, and Christina Quarles. Former faculty include Emma Amos, Mel Chin, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, Odili Donald Odita, Howardena Pindell, and Mickalene Thomas. Many other artists and alumni have served on Skowhegan’s boards. Fred Gibson, Jennie C. Jones, Shaun Leonardo, Whitfield Lovell, Alison Saar, Arthur Simms, and Fred Wilson are currently members of the Board of Governors.

After his artist residency in 1953, David C. Driskell literally made Maine his second home and repeatedly returned to Skowhegan. Driskell was a resident faculty member (1978) and visiting faculty (1976, 1991, 2004) and also served on the board of governors (1975-1989) and board of trustees (1989-2002).

Artists Heather Hart and Jina Valentine developed Black Lunch Table in 2005 during their residencies at Skowhegan. The organization’s team and remit continue to grow exponentially. BLT convenes roundtables, bringing artists together to dialogue on a range of issues and preserving the conversations in an online oral history archive, and has created hundreds of new Wikipedia entries documenting the lives and work of Black artists.

“The relationships Sarah has formed with participants over the past fourteen years are generously conspiratorial—less administrative, more involved, deeper, meaningful, intimate, and rare. Founded by artists, for artists, is the motto, but to it Sarah has appended sustained advocacy, often invisible, for the artists and their practice.” — Dave McKenzie


DURING HER TENURE, Workneh played a critical role in leading the growth and transformation of Skowhegan, from its first strategic plan, historic capital campaign, campus redevelopment, and improved application process to navigating educational programming through the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrating the organization’s 75th anniversary in 2021, expanding diversity among artists, faculty, and staff, and creating an equitable environment.

“Sarah’s commitment to the program has been unwavering. There is not an inch of campus that she is not familiar with, nor a participant or faculty member she did not know deeply. She and Katie set Skowhegan up for a dynamic future, and the Trustees and Governors acknowledge with gratitude her extraordinary tenure at the school,” Chair of the Board of Trustees Eleanor Acquavella said in a statement.

After Driskell passed away in 2020, in the early weeks of the pandemic, Workneh provided Culture Type with a heartfelt remembrance of the renowned artist, curator, and scholar, calling him a “steward of Skowhegan” and “guardian of the school.” She went on to share how Driskell’s support and guidance were invaluable to her in her leadership role.


April 26, 2016: David Driskell, Sarah Workneh, co-director of Skowhegan, and Thelma Driskell at Skowhegan 70th Anniversary Celebration Awards Dinner at The Plaza in New York City. | © Patrick McMullan, Photo by Sylvain Gaboury/PMC


“From my first days of working at Skowhegan, I felt David was always looking out for me. At Skowhegan’s Annual Awards Dinner in 2015, I had written the speech that I was to deliver to close the evening. All day, I felt uncomfortable celebrating because there had been riots in my hometown of Baltimore for days following the murder of Freddie Gray. And so, in the cab on the way to the event, I re-wrote what I was going to say,” Workneh said. “I was nervous obviously, because talking about riots, and police brutality, and death isn’t what is typically discussed at a fancy gala. But when I stood at the podium and started to speak, I looked at David and he looked me straight in the eye and simply nodded a few times in approval, encouraging me on. That moment for me was one of the most important because it allowed me to know that what I was doing was right.”

She added: “Having the support of this person, who had done so much more during moments where it was so much harder for our community to do anything at all, was something, and is something, that has propelled my work further. David was a constant reminder to me that our social and political worlds aren’t separate from our art world, as distant as it may sometimes seem.”

“David [Driskell] was a constant reminder to me that our social and political worlds aren’t separate from our art world, as distant as it may sometimes seem.” — Sarah Workneh

IN TANDEM WITH HER ROLE at Skowhegan, Workneh has published essays and lectured widely. In 2018, she was a co-curator of the 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial in Maine. She helped organize Theaster Gates’s annual Black Artist Retreat in Chicago from its inception in 2013 and, in 2012, she was the first guest editor of Atlanta-based Art Papers. Previously, Workneh spent nine years as associate director of Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Douglas, Mich.

Workneh’s board memberships include Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine; RAIR in Philadelphia; the Buxton School in Williamstown, Mass.; and the Lake Wesserunsett Association Conservation Committee in Madison, Maine. Workneh is on the advisory boards of Black Lunch Table and Recess in New York. She is also a member of the ProjectEats board and in 2020 partnered with ProjectEats founder Linda Goode Bryant to convert an urban farm into a food pantry in Brownsville, N.Y.

In December, Workneh will depart Skowhegan. In January, she is joining Sky High Farm, a non-profit founded by artist Dan Colen in Hudson Valley, New York. Workneh will be co-director of the organization, which is “committed to food sovereignty by supporting burgeoning farmers through formal training and mentoring, grants to catalyze a more equitable food system, and food access partnerships designed to achieve long-term solutions to food insecurity.”

At Skowhegan, co-director Katie Sonnenborn is continuing in her role and the boards are launching a search to identify Workneh’s successor.

“Skowhegan has given me so many gifts in what I have learned, what I have accomplished, and most importantly, what I have felt was possible in the world,” Workneh said in a statement. “I remain deeply committed to the mission of Skowhegan and the space it creates for artists to grow, to shift, to challenge and to start anew.” CT


IMAGE: Top right, Photo by Elle Pérez


To learn more about Skowhegan, consider “The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture: 60 Years” and “Skowhegan: a Ten-Year Retrospective, 1975-1985.” The work of David C. Driskell is explored in “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” and “David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar.” Meanwhile, “Two Centuries of Black American Art” documents Driskell’s landmark traveling exhibition, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976.


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