Almost everyone I spoke with — and by “almost everyone,” I mean “everyone” — agrees that arts residencies are a great leap forward for one’s art career. The intangible benefits for artists are clear, as residencies offer a calming place to do work outside of the usual grind of the studio. And even in an era of social media, the possibilities of networking with other artists and arts professionals can be invaluable.
But almost everyone I spoke — and by “almost everyone,” I again mean “everyone” — noted that residencies are difficult for artists to do. This is especially true for young artists, who are less likely to be making a living simply do their work and must juggle a number of paid work opportunities or a day job to make ends meet.
Indeed, this seems to be the biggest drawback of residencies. In a previous post, I cited encouraging statistics from the Alliance of Artist Communities, namely, that two-thirds of residencies don’t charge artists. Many even provide a stipend. But with a limited number of open spots, competition can be high. And leaving to do the residency itself incurs a cost — namely, the lack of paid work during that time off.
“We talk a lot with artists about how to afford a residency and also how to determine how much it actually costs,” said Caitlin Strokosch, director at the Alliance. A presentation online outlines some of the benefits of residencies and the services the Alliance provides. “One thing that I really caution artists about is not ruling out any residency that might charge a fee.” Indeed, the total cost is what’s important, as residencies that require payment might also provide room and board in return at rates well below those of renting a room and paying for your own food.
Artists should seek support and take advantage of resources like the Alliance to find affordable residency programs. As mentioned in the first installment of this article, artists should also plan ahead and save up — many residencies require applications months in advance, meaning plenty of time to apply for time off and squirrel some cash away for the trip.
A Case Study: The Fire Island Artists Residency
I spoke with Chris Bogia, who, along with Evan J. Garza, founded the Fire Island Artist Residency. As reported in Hyperallergic, it was the first in the nation catering specifically to LGBT artists. A new residency, it caught my eye not just because it was founded during a weak economy but that it provides room and board to all participant artists. Bogia had never done a residency before, as he was limited by a full-time job, but he found a way not only to participate in a residency but create one too.
“Something I feel strongly about is that most emerging artists can’t afford an artist residency,” Bogia told me. “We wanted to make it free, as Fire Island is an expensive place.” Important to queer history, the island also offers an opportunity for quiet contemplation, making it ideal for a residency that provides a community of artists and mentors.
A two-week program, it received 75 applications almost immediately, and Bogia and Garza were able to raise a “bare bones budget of $9,000” through various sponsors, thus allowing them to provide full room and board for participants. “I was terrified something was going to go wrong,” Bogia confessed. “Someone’s not gonna have what they need to make their work. We’re not gonna have the space. I was afraid we had bed bugs at one point.”
But “the artists just worked. They worked all the time.” And in the end of the two-week period, Bogia felt it was successful. “Who doesn’t want to go to Fire Island for a few weeks? It’s hard to take off time from work. I never did a residency till I started one. But we’re offering enough to make it appealing. We want to keep it growing every summer.”
After feedback from participant artists, Fire Island is expanding to a month-long program, and artists simply need to pay for transportation and supplies. In return, they get food, a place to stay, and a valuable community of fellow queer artists and mentors.
And how does Bogia himself afford it?
“I’m taking a month of no pay to do this,” he said. Bogia works at NYU, making it easier to take time off during the academic down time in the summer, but he receives no compensation from the university during the month off. “Hopefully we can raise enough money that I can offset that evenly. But it’s not a priority.”
And in devoting so much of their time to fundraising, he hopes to make it easier for artists to participate. “Because we’re free, hopefully that makes it easier.”
How Can Residencies Be More Accessible?
Bogia’s work, and other short-term residency programs I’ve come across, point to a way forward for residencies. All artists make sacrifices early in their careers, but long-term residencies in particular privilege those with financial means. Artists with strict rules at their day jobs, artists with student loan obligations, artists with families to care for, artists with physical disabilities — these artists could benefit greatly from a residency but might find it challenging to participate in a traditional program.
Indeed, I’ve benefited greatly from ad hoc short term residencies. While visiting Pittsburgh, the Mattress Factory hooked me up with a one-night stay, an opportunity that allowed me to bike around town and explore the different arts institutions in the city. After finishing a project in the southern part of South Korea, I was able to stay for two nights at the residency program in Haeinsa Temple in Daegu, on my way back to Seoul. I helped out with some of the installation work, met some artists and found new inspiration.
A short-term residency can be more diverse, welcoming artists for two weeks, one week or even just a weekend. It can happen during popular holiday periods, like Labor Day or Independence Day, when many people will have time off. It can happen just at night, after most people get off work. And then it can open again in the morning, for night shift workers.
As my research for this essay has shown, residencies undeniably help artists in many tangible and intangible ways. What’s next, I think, is making residencies accessible to more artists. On the artist end, this means providing more resources, training and support for artists who want to join. If the Fire Island Residency is any indication, anything is possible — even creating a residency — with the right business savvy and willingness to make sacrifices.
And on the residency end, this means providing more ways for more artists to participate, beyond the usual expectation of a many-weeks commitment. Short-term residencies are a possibility, as are online residencies. Residencies shouldn’t be the privilege of those with means — all artists can benefit, even for a weekend, from this studio away from home.
“The rest of your time being an artist is hard,” said Laurie Frick, who’s attended many residencies in her career. “You’re generally not well treated. You don’t get respect on a day to day basis.”
But something changes when you arrive. “Usually there’s this moment when they [the residency staff] are happy to see you. They’re nice to you and feed you. You get this short period of time where somebody treats you really really well. It’s a message that you’re making a difference in the culture. You have a place.”