After a fulfilling career as a publishing Princeton historian (most notably as the author of The History of White People), Nell Painter began again in art school, a move eliciting a great deal of curiosity. In residence in 2016, she completed a memoir entitled Old in Art School, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle autobiography award. In 2017 she completed the series "You Say This Can't Really Be America" and in 2018 she published an art review of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power in the New York Review Daily. Painter was appointed Chairman of the Board of Directors of MacDowell in 2020.
In residence in 2019, Painter created "Ancient Hair Book" and four installations on her studio wall for a project that will ultimately become an artist's book with the working title Were the Ancients White? In 2021, Nell was in residence working on a book of her essays.