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Austin Becomes Newest US City to Introduce Artist-in-Residence Program

The nine-month residency will have the artist respond to specific issues identified by a civic department.

An artist paints storm drains for Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, part of the Fresh Art/Fresh Water Program (photo courtesy City of Austin Watershed Protection)

Austin has launched an artist-in-residence program that embeds an artist within a civic department to create work that supports the local government and engages with the community. Organized by the city’s Cultural Arts Division, the nine-month residency will have the artist respond to specific issues identified by the involved department. Applications are open to those in the Austin metropolitan area and are due by February 16.

Jacob Villanueva and Jeff Clarke, “Below” (2013) (courtesy Philp Rogers Photography)

“The Artist-in-Residence Program will create opportunities for looking at City services and citizen engagement through an artistic lens,” Cultural Arts Division Manager Meghan Wells said in a statement. “Austin is widely regarded for its creative approach to governance, and we are excited to add to that legacy with this dynamic new program that champions both the City and our artistic community.”

The residency launches in March, and the city has already has selected its Watershed Protection Department as the first to participate. The selected artist, who will receive a budget that covers both working hours ($8,750) and related expenses (up to $5,000), will likely focus on boosting the visibility of the department’s programs.

Austin’s residency joins a handful of similar schemes implemented by city governments across the United States. Last year, Los Angeles hired Alan Nakagawa to be its first Creative Catalyst Artist in Residence; he’s currently working with the Department of Transportation to help reduce traffic fatalities. In New York City, Mierle Laderman Ukeles has held a decades-long (unpaid) residency with the Department of Sanitation, communicating with thousands of sanitation workers, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) announced in 2015 that Tania Bruguera would have a one-year residency to help the agency engage with undocumented residents. Boston recently entered the second year of its artist-in-residence program, which brings on multiple artists at a time; while three were selected last year, the city now has 10 actively working with departments. Creative CityMaking Minneapolis, although not a residency on paper, pairs a number of community artists with city departments for long-term collaboration, while twin Saint Paul has a nearly 12-year-old “City Artist” program, in which artists work with public agencies to improve their urban environment.

Austin’s addition to this growing roster exemplifies the value of social practice and the tangible impact artists can have on their communities with their particular skills and ways of thinking.

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