Surveying Arts Residencies Today: How Residencies Can Help (Part 2)

Workstation of Shoestring Press in the Concrete Utopia Project Space, Brooklyn.  Image by Allison Meier.
Workstation of Shoestring Press in the Concrete Utopia Project Space, Brooklyn. (image by Allison Meier)

In my first post in this series, I looked at the basic stats of doing a residency. The Alliance of Artists Communities noted that some 500 residency programs exist in the US, and over 1,000 can be found around the world. But if you’re like most artists I know, you may not have done a residency, or you’re wondering if it’s even necessary to do one at all anymore.

Indeed, the costs of securing a residency can be quite steep. Some programs ask the artist to pay for everything but the rent. Even generous ones provide only a meager stipend on top of room and board, leaving the costs of materials and travel up to the artist. Those that do provide for all costs are naturally more competitive than others.

Sometimes, there can be a clear return on the investment. Some residencies sync up with the local collector base and attract prominent curators. But more often than not, the return on the investment of time and money to participate in a residency is difficult to measure. And in many ways, that makes it more important.

I asked on Twitter about artists who’ve done residencies and got a number of replies, but this was my favorite:

The Value of Time and Space

New media artist Joseph Delappe exhibited his work at Where Where Art Space, a gallery and residency in Beijing. Image by the author.
New media artist Joseph Delappe exhibited his work at Where Where Art Space, a gallery and residency in Beijing. (image by the author)

“I started doing residencies right as I finished my MFA,” noted artist Laurie Frick. “I felt like I go half an education and needed to go out there and get the other half. Residencies made a big difference for me. ”

Indeed, by providing studio space and time, residencies allowed Frick to experiment with new types of installation work and materials. She already has her own studio space, but, as any artist can attest, it’s easy to fall into a routine. She noted the importance of getting a new space entirely.

“You get to this place and then something happens,” she said. “And you either find new materials or you get access to tools you never had. People ask what you get out of a residency. In studio you make the same work all the time. It’s a trigger. I usually get to a new residency with a plan … and then I abandon the plan.”

Indeed, it’s always difficult to travel to another country or cultural sphere, whether that be into the bustling streets of Nairobi or the quiet air of the rural Midwest. That change of pace, that change of environment, can have profound effects on one’s creativity. Taken away from the usual routine, artists often come to important breakthroughs.

“Really the most incredible gift that residencies offer is trusting artists to do whatever they need to do to further their creative practice,” said Caitlin Strokosch, who heads up the Alliance of Artists Communities. “And just creating an environment that the program thinks is gonna be good for them, and just letting it happen.”

Making New Contacts

William Powhida, "Everyone I’ve Ever Met from Memory (that I can remember)", detail (2005) (photo via John Michael Kohler Arts Center, a residency program in Sheboygan, Wisconsin).
William Powhida, “Everyone I’ve Ever Met from Memory (that I can remember)”, detail (2005) (photo via John Michael Kohler Arts Center, a residency program in Sheboygan, Wisconsin).

Certainly, the reflection time and the new space are valuable, but residencies also tend to be occupied by other artists. In her article on residencies in the developing world, curator and Hyperallergic contributor Claire Breukel pointed to the other intangible value of doing a residency:

Residency programs in developing world cities like Kuona are often known for their personal touch and the people involved who see the value of the exchange and make the experience inviting and worthwhile. Danda Jaroljmek, director of the Kuona Trust and Centre for Visual Arts, explains the role of artist residencies in Africa as “enormously important to the local art scene, bringing in new contacts, new art practices and ideas. The local community of artists is usually very supportive of visitors, so visiting artists integrate quickly into the art scene and are really looked after. This is not often the case in big first world cities like London.” The Kuona Trust purposefully pairs up a local artist with a visiting artist to help facilitate their visit from a peer group perspective.

And you also meet new artists who’ve been working in completely different contexts from yours previously. “A lot of emerging artists are coming out of different parts of the world,” she noted. Breukel, who travels regularly between South Africa and the US, finds that residencies in other countries are particularly effective. “It’s always interesting for an artist working in an experimental way.”

And while the simple act of connecting with other artists from different cultures can be inspiring, it’s also a savvy business move. Artists know other artists, and they know other curators and writers. Building one’s network can lead to more shows, reviews and sales. And if you have the good fortune of seeing a more established artist at work, you might catch a glimpse of a model for your own success.

“I’ve also met people that were much more famous,” noted Frick of her multiple residency experiences. “You get a chance to chat with them and watch their studio practice. You see how they’re making work, and you sit and have breakfast in the morning. It kind of demystifies it all.”

Indeed, almost everyone I spoke to for this article, and almost everyone I’ve spoken with in casual conversation agrees that these two factors are the most important benefit of residencies — finding a new space and energy to do the work, and building valuable relationships and connections with artists outside their usual circle.

And so the trick is, how to make it happen, and how to get value out of it. For that discussion, I’ll be speaking with a new residency director and offering some thoughts of my own.

Up Next: In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at how to make an arts residency happen.

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