One of the basic truisms of freelancing is: You can have time, or you can have resources, but you will almost never have both simultaneously. A foundational lesson of this workflow is doing the work when it’s available and saving as much as possible for the slow times. But its counterpart is this: When times are slow, that’s the opportunity to do your own (uncompensated) thing, and you should not waste this time wallowing in anxiety about the next paid gig.

I truly never expected the government to identify freelancers as a vulnerable population needing to be covered by unemployment. Mostly 1099 workers pay disproportionately into public benefit systems without being able to access them. Imagine my complete surprise when I discovered that freelancers were being offered unprecedented unemployment benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. In other words: every 1099 worker is being offered a paid artist residency. Trump may have killed NEA funding, but the pandemic inadvertently resuscitated it on a mass scale.

In pre-pandemic times, artists competed tooth and nail for residency opportunities. Even when you get them, they tend to conceal sunken costs, such as requiring travel away from your life and home, thus necessitating use of resources you’re granted just to maintain your permanent homestead. You may have to pay to board pets. You may have to ship supplies or buy new ones when you get to New Hampshire or Maine or Houston or a tiny remote island and realize you left the perfect thing back in your studio.

There are arguably many benefits of destination residencies, from offering new social connections, to providing bucolic surroundings, to the stimulation of a change of scene — but in my experience, the best conditions for making art involve getting paid to make art where I’ve already built the infrastructure that enables me to make art. Since March of 2020, that’s what I’ve done, and it’s been a productive year.

Sarah Rose Sharp, “Immigrant Song” (2020) tablecloth by Rose Blaug (artist’s great-grandmother), rice bag, embroidery thread, sequins, patches, beads, fake flowers, plastic table coverings, etc (image by PD Rearick, courtesy the author)

And it’s a terrific moment to have creative people collectively on paid residency, because this past year has otherwise been hell, with many of the things that inform and structure quotidian existence shaken to their foundations. Because artists make meaning out of chaos the pre-COVID world that others inhabited so effortlessly didn’t actually make all that much sense to us to begin with. During this time I find myself and other creative people asking a lot of questions about how necessary nine-to-five workdays were in the first place (or conversely, understanding how utterly crucial and underpaid teachers are), and dreaming about new ways we might approach what is to come — ways that centralize, value, and hold people when our labels peel back or entirely fall away. The work I’ve seen artists doing this year in lockdown, the solace and continuity the creative community has offered to a population scared, grieving, uncertain, and bored, the ways people have found a way to stay connected through distance, difficulty, and estrangement from social norms — all of these are testaments to the creative spirit. And on a policy level, they also make a strong case for Universal Basic Income. I haven’t seen anyone working less, I’ve just seen them directing their efforts into things that feel meaningful, instead of clock punching.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” While this year has made it clear that some of humanity’s problems stem from bats, it’s definitely given some of us the opportunity to attempt to live in the solution to our other problems — which is to say, there are worse things we could practice than sitting quietly in a room alone. There are lots of things that I will never see in the same way again, but personally, I no longer see the artist residency as an away-game activity, but one to be cultivated as thoroughly as possible on the home field.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

One reply on “The Pandemic as Inadvertent Artist Residency, a Silver Lining in a Year of Isolation”

  1. This is spot on! I’m a transplanted Michigander in Philadelphia, PA and have been a free-lance sculptor for the past 35 years. I’ve done W-2 and 1099 work to support my habit. When I’ve been collecting unemployment after a lay off I told people it’s my personal NEA grant, one that I’ve earned. When I free lanced I put everything aside (money and ideas) for the lean times so i could the real work (my own) done. When there was no income (1099 or W-2) I did my own work to keep anxiety at bay and knowing that the wheel will turn and work will show up. I was ecstatic that the US government finally recognized 1099 workers. I did one artist’s residency away from my studio and the whole time I kept saying to myself ‘ I could do this better and easier at home’. Your observations on the artist /surviving/thriving/situation are well seen and soundly articulated. Thank you!

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