An Interview with Sara Knox Hunter on Founding and Funding a Discussion Residency

by Megan Marz

In 2011, Sara Knox Hunter founded Summer Forum, which takes the model of an artists’ residency and uses it to support reading and conversation. Each Summer Forum residency has a broad theme, assigned texts, invited guests, and a carefully chosen location, all of which serve as starting points for discussion. This year’s residency will take place from July 6 to 13 in Joshua Tree, California. The 34 residents (chosen from a pool of about 100 applicants) will sleep, eat, and attend the program for $350 — one-third of the actual cost per person. Sara (who just moved to New York from Richmond, Virginia) and I (who live in Chicago) talked about Summer Forum over Skype.

What led to your starting Summer Forum?

Originally I was planning to finish my terminal master’s degree and then apply for a Ph.D. program in comparative literature. On my way to doing that, instead of picking a more traditional thesis focus, I started to look more at the institution and examined this specific publication called Profession [the Modern Language Association’s “journal about the fields of modern languages and literatures as a profession”].

I started looking at articles from the mid- to late-1970s and compared them with the academic articles that were coming out and all the mainstream press that academia was getting after 2008, and the issues were so similar: education is too expensive, we hire way too many adjuncts, we’re losing full-time faculty positions, we’re accepting too many Ph.D. students so that there are too many unemployed Ph.D.s once they graduate. It was pretty depressing to me. We keep talking about a crisis in education, but it’s really this ongoing slow drag.

So how did you come out of your thesis research thinking about something like Summer Forum?

At the same time, my partner, Michael Hunter, was going to different artists’ residencies. And a lot of my close friends are artists, and they would all go away for the summer. I was like, maybe there’s some way to create something discussion-oriented that utilizes that model, where you don’t have to be in grad school, you don’t have to commit to five-plus years for a Ph.D., you don’t have to pay for a terminal master’s program, but you can still have these opportunities for intense study and commitment with a group of people who are all curious and interested in discussing ideas and willing to commit a smaller amount of time and a smaller amount of money. That was my starting point.

Why did you decide to focus on bringing people together physically instead of doing something online?

Giving people the opportunity to be in a room together — it’s like a conjuring experience. You’re allowing for ideas to literally be heard — processed through your ears and spoken through your mouth. There’s something really valuable, I think, in that.

There’s room for the personal and an intense level of discourse, and I think that works really well when you’re face to face.

How would you describe an average day at Summer Forum?

I think there’s a great deal of exhaustion, which I sort of feel bad about, because I definitely give too much reading out. Everyone is vigorously reading in between vigorously conversing. We usually do two discussions a day. The first is a required discussion session and people are divided into groups at random. Last time we drew names at breakfast and you would get assigned to a different group each day.

For the second, it’s more of a supplementary discussion and residents self-organize those. Then we have lectures from invited guests. It’s packed. It’s very packed. There’s lots of talking.

How would you describe the crowd of residents? What kind of people apply?

We’re trying to be very forcefully multidisciplinary. I would say that the majority of the people who apply are visual artists, and that would probably speak to our community, where we started off. There are also creative writers, art historians, curators, critics, poets, some literary studies people. We’re hoping to make it increasingly interdisciplinary as we grow.

How did you get from the point of having the initial idea to raising money and getting people to apply and putting up a website? What was the hardest practical part of getting things started?

Fundraising is the most difficult aspect of running an organization in general. You start an organization because you’re passionate, you have an idea, and then fundraising is that ‘do you have what it takes’ mentality.

What makes fundraising so difficult?

We have fiscal sponsorship, but applying for grants with a fiscal sponsor as opposed to being a 501(c)(3) is a limitation. A lot of grants don’t even allow for fiscal sponsors. But I haven’t pursued the 501(c)(3) yet because I’m unsure how I feel about the 501(c)(3) structure: the fundraising, the board of directors, et cetera. I like being a sole proprietorship because it allows for Summer Forum to be as uncomplicated as possible at this point.

When you’re operating in that weird middle space, trying not to define yourself, it makes fundraising complicated because then you have to make weird alliances with places like Kickstarter. That’s obviously a problematic space, but it’s also a space that we hugely rely on for our fundraising.

And we do an art auction every other year, so then we rely on the generosity of our talented friends to donate to our auction. In some ways it’s beneficial to them but in some ways it’s extremely taxing on them.

What do you see as the pros and cons of the path you’ve taken?

I feel like I’m at a crossroads: Do I want to pursue some kind of nonprofit, or do I want to try to make it a for-profit entity and create some kind of arm for Summer Forum that would fund the residency itself, or do I want to just keep doing it this way for the rest of my life? I couldn’t give you an answer right now as to which road I’ll take.

We had quite a few applications this year and we could only accept 35 people. I would have loved to have accepted the majority of the people that applied, but when you’re working with a smaller budget, there are not a lot of options.

I’d love to have multiple sessions of Summer Forum each summer we do it. I’d love to have a long weekend course for people who can’t take the one week away. I’d love to have a three-week program for people who want to dive more deeply into a specific topic. I have a lot of other ideas that I would love to implement, but it does require a commitment either way, either the for-profit commitment or the nonprofit commitment with a major commitment to fundraising.

Right now you do other work to make a living?

Yes, I definitely do. Last year, I was a tour guide and I led tours in New York, D.C., and Chicago for coach buses full of 13-year-olds. I just got a new job as a content specialist for a consulting firm. So I’ve always had a pretty stable income. I’ve never made any money on Summer Forum.

I imagine there’s a kind of freedom in having it be this side project that you’re not really dependent on, but the at the same time that means you have less time to devote to it. How does that balance play into your thinking about what to do next?

My dad always gave me this advice: Find one thing that you love and stick to it. My dad’s given me a lot of really good advice in my life, but that was definitely the advice I never took because I’ve never been able to decide what I wanted to do. I still feel that way now.

I always have a list of 25-plus projects or things I want to learn. So in that sense, you’re right, there is this freedom from my own project that I do really like because it allows me to be able to turn to these other things and then also bring those other things into Summer Forum. It keeps
my world really open.

But I fear that at some point that could also make Summer Forum suffer. I do wonder if, at some point, Summer Forum will demand more of me.

I assume the other residents are bringing a lot of different interests to Summer Forum as well. Does that affect the discussions that go on?

We make the theme very purposefully huge and expansive. And the discussions themselves are completely open-ended. There aren’t any questions or prompts to the discussions. I think that was a little uncomfortable at first, the first time we did it. But I also think that it can be an empowering structure.

I want to create a minor chaos — not a major chaos — where you feel some comfort because you’re aware of some general structure that surrounds you but there’s enough space to take it in so many directions.

Do you have a favorite moment from the last Summer Forum?

I wouldn’t say it’s a moment, but I just loved the sound of people talking all the time. It was just like a little hive of people extending conversation even after hours and hours each day of scheduled conversation. The intensity really never diminished. For me that’s very energizing.

Also, when Lucky Dragons [an experimental music group who were invited guests] performed later in the week. Their set requires community interaction, so by the end we were all linking hands with everyone in the room. The energy there felt really incredible. It was the same kind of intensity as the discussion. I felt like the sound waves were doing something very similar.

You talked about the artists’ residency as a model for this. Is there anything else you look to as a model?

I talk about it like a graduate seminar. I also use the model of a book club a lot. I usually say Summer Forum is like a book club if you’re the type of person who comes to a book club and is dissatisfied with how far the conversation goes — that moment of changing the subject at the end of the book club comes too soon.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Megan Marz is a writer and editor living in Chicago.

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