What is Free Columbia?

Free Columbia is located in the heart of Columbia County, NY, in the post-industrial village of Philmont. Over the last ten years we’ve developed full-time residential programs for adults that bring together studio and performing arts, social theory and action, and nature studies. Our pedagogy is inspired by contemplative inquiry, aesthetic education, and action research. In his book, Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry, Arthur Zajonc writes:


We desperately need to extend the sciences to include disciplined contemplative inquiry…the sciences of economics, government, environment, business and medicine, as well as the arts, can all be extended fruitfully to include the spiritual.  This requires us to embrace the fuller and therefore more adequate conception of the world available through contemplative inquiry and knowing.


Deepening approaches to knowledge through contemplative inquiry has the potential to benefit our mental health and our capacity for insight. Aesthetic education has come to be associated with the arts, but one of the areas where it’s most needed today is the sciences.  Through aesthetic education we strengthen capacities of observation and perception, of memory, feeling, and the expressive dimensions of judgment and knowledge. It also has the potential to thicken our connection to place, a connection that has grown thin in recent years with the mass migration of people to virtual worlds. Action research encourages continually connecting insight and knowledge to practical life in community. We begin to make our ideas real and to seek ideals and practices that are worthy of our knowledge. Through local service work (assignments on local sustainable farms, etc) a grounding element is integrated into Free Columbia. 

Our Story

Free Columbia art training Columbia County

September 14th, 2009, thirty-five people sat in a circle in Bright Wing Studio in Hillsdale, NY and Free Columbia began. A year earlier, in 2008, Laura Summer, who had been teaching painting on a part-time basis for 12 years, met Nathaniel Williams, who had been teaching painting and puppetry in various places around the US. They began to talk about forming an intensive year of engagement with art and anthroposophy which they would call Free Columbia. Integral to the course would be the question of freedom. What is it? How do we achieve it? How does it relate to responsibility?

They decided not to create a program with a conventional tuition-based financial model. Set tuitions encourage people to think about culture as a product they can buy like any commodity. One of the greatest instigators of lively art and cultural activity is for those involved to recognize that it is always a kind of grace. They shaped the flow of money through Free Columbia in such a way that it does not distort the work. They intended to create a structure for the establishment of an area that is explicitly supported by gifts, which liberates inspiration on the side of the recipient. At Free Columbia there are no set tuitions or materials fees.

All students and interested observers are encouraged to donate to support the endeavor by giving now and then, pledging monthly amounts and even setting up regular deductions from their bank accounts. All expenses are publicly displayed and communicated. This structure provides the benefit of a kind of cultural hygiene. It also brings us a step closer to the ideal of Free Culture - where people's financial situation shouldn't determine their access to develop themselves or to access culture.

ramapo salamander
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For the first two years Free Columbia had 3-4 full time students and many part-time students. The focus was on painting and the study of anthroposophy. The third year of Free Columbia activity increased and eleven full time students finished the program of painting, drawing and puppetry in June. During these years In 2013-16 between 5 and 9 people participated in the full-time program each year. Part time intensives were held both locally and in California, Oregon, and Washington DC. Over 3000 people saw our puppet shows of Excerpts from the Journey of the Peacemaker and Momo the Time Titan. In Free Columbia’s Art Dispersals hundreds of works of art have been dispersed. Donations to support free culture were accepted from the recipients. In 2016 Free Columbia initiated its first Artist in Residency Program, welcoming artists from the USA, Finland and Sweden.

In 2018 Free Columbia collaborated with Lightforms: Art + Spirit, a multipurpose art center initiative in Hudson NY, that expanded the residency program. In 2018 Zoltán Döbröntei travelled from Hungary to Philmont to create three site specific paintings during the month of November. Seth Jordan and Nathaniel Williams led the first Social Theory and Action program, working with seven interns. The focus of this program was holistic monetary design.

2019 is dedicated to laying the groundwork for a growth in activity. This includes new facilities, programs and faculty.

* Free Columbia is part of a multifaceted association called the Hawthorne Valley Association. This association is dedicated to promoting social and cultural renewal through the integration of education, agriculture, and the arts. This includes striving to foster cultural activities that facilitate individuals developing themselves, making spaces where a person's latent gifts can grow in freedom. It is rooted in the view that though freedom and culture may not always satisfy immediate demands of society, ultimately, when taking the wide view of time, their fruits nourish all.