Original by Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities.
Artists’ communities, colonies, residencies, workspaces—they go by many names but share a common purpose: to provide artists with dedicated time and space to create new work. Rather than focusing on the end product, artists communities offer artists the opportunity to explore, take risks, experiment, and collaborate. They are, in essence, research-and-development labs for the arts. You’ve probably heard of a few—The MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, Skowhegan, Anderson Ranch—but with some 250 plus artists’ residencies in the U.S. and another 500 internationally, there is something for every artistic discipline, and for every stage of your creative process.
Artists’ communities began in this country around the turn of the last century and were created as a kind of utopia, removing artists from their everyday lives to provide solitude and a community of like-minded people in a rural retreat setting. Fast-forward 100 years and you’ll find that there are as many utopian visions as there are residencies, and each balances solitude and community in its own way—from studio residencies in a Manhattan skyscraper to a secluded cabin in the Oregon woods.
The average length of a residency is 4-6 weeks, with some as short as a few days or as long as a few years.
The average number of artists-in-residence at a time is 9, while a quarter host only 1 or 2 artists at a time. (The most is 50.)
Roughly 60% of residencies are in rural areas and small towns, and 40% are in urban areas.
Residencies serve emerging, mid-career, and established artists in equal measure.
70% of residencies are multidisciplinary—serving visual artists, writers, composers, choreographers, filmmaker, and others—while 24% focus just on the visual arts.
Choosing the right program requires research, so that the experience is positive for both you and the organization. Here are a few things to consider:
What you get besides getting away
The difference between a residency and working in your home studio is more than just dedicated time and space. Residencies offer an opportunity to expand your own resources, whether in the form of community, financial or technical support, access to equipment, collaborators, or presentation of your work. Choosing a residency can be similar to selecting a college—it’s not just the reputation that matters, but the people, environment, alumni support, and style of the place that makes it a good fit.
The total cost of a residency varies greatly depending on the fees required or stipends provided. There are the direct costs to the artist (including meals, materials, and transportation), as well as the indirect costs (loss of income, maintaining your home, pet care, etc.). For example, a “free” residency that lasts 6 months and does not provide meals may cost you more in the end than a 4-month residency that charges fees but provides food and materials. Many residencies that charge fees also have scholarships available, and most state arts councils have small grants for professional development that can be applied to travel costs and such. Artists who just look at the advertised bottom line may miss out on a great experience.
Length of time
How much time can you realistically take? How much time do you need? A long stretch of time to work on a novel, start a new direction in your work or explore different techniques? A short residency to finish editing, sketch some ideas, move to the next phase of a project? Do you need a two-week break while still maintaining your home, job and family, or a six-month change of scenery? Some residencies have a set length, while others let you choose how much time you need. Consider different phases of work that could be accomplished in different spans of time, too—a week may not be the time you need to paint a new series, but it may be just right for sketching new ideas.
Don’t get hung up on geography. You can find isolated, bucolic retreats in the middle of a city, or vibrant activity in a rural area. The community within the residency is as important as the external community. But location certainly matters if you’re looking for international residencies, if your work incorporates the people and places around you, if you have a limited ability to travel, or if you are looking for a studio (as opposed to live-in) residency in your own community.
For example, choosing a residency program in the heart of Manhattan is sure to offer you a connection to the local community, but what about rural residencies or small towns? How much community is fostered by the residency program itself, and how much is available to artists to pursue on their own? And what if you’d rather work in isolation? Geography alone does not dictate how much connection to community you’ll find; instead, consider how many other artists will be in residence (if it’s a large group, that may provide its own community), what other programs the organization has in the community (workshops, exhibitions, performances, etc.), and how much access there is to transportation and other means for interacting with others outside the residency.
International residencies require some additional considerations of community. First of all, do some research on the cultural norms and expectations of the host country and region. For example, if you are a female artist considering a residency in a primarily Muslim country, what will that mean for you? As a U.S. citizen, will you be viewed with any particular bias by community members or other artists? Additionally, knowing what the internal residency community is like for the visiting artists is important. Are the other artists-in-residence international or primarily from the host country? What languages will be spoken? How much support is offered to help artists acclimate to the local community and culture? What kind of local community interaction is expected of the visiting artists? Understanding what it means to be a global artistic citizen is critical when considering international residencies. Also remember that no matter where you choose to go, you are a de facto representative of your home country and culture, with all the positives and negatives that entails.
While not all residencies provide living space, many do. The living environments of residencies vary as much as the programs themselves: dorm-style housing, private rooms in a larger house, or individual cabins or apartments; there’s also workspace that is separate from the living facility, or living and working in the same space. How meals are handled varies as well, from who provides groceries to who prepares food, how many meals are provided, and whether kitchen facilities are private or shared by all artists. Preparing dinner together as a group can be a wonderful way for artists to get to know each other; for others, not needing to schedule around meals affords them more time to work.
Some residencies provide private studios (like a cabin or an enclosed room), others are semi-private (sectioned-off spaces within a larger workspace), and others have collective workspaces (typically for those media that require specific equipment, like printmaking or glassblowing). Consider your working style, the number of other artists in residence at a time, and at what point in your process you’ll be working (you may need more privacy at some stages than others).
Think, too, about your technical needs. Some residencies provide facilities, equipment, and technical assistance that support specific art forms (for example, metal, wood, and printmaking workspaces; dance floors and theater space; recording studios; kilns, darkrooms, and digital media labs) while others offer raw space. Consider what your art practice requires, and what stage your work is in. For example, if you create artwork that requires large space and equipment to complete, a residency with a smaller unequipped studio may still serve you while you’re in the beginning stages of your project.
If you’re overwhelmed, don’t be. These are just tools for familiarizing yourself with the options. Check out different organizations’ websites, talk to the staff, apply to as many programs as you can and go with your gut. Here’s how to prepare:
You need well-documented examples of your recent (last 3-5 years) work. The quality of your materials reflects the quality of your work. Be sure that your documentation is in the requested format (e.g., online, digital images, DVD’s etc). If you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to contact the residency to determine what formats it prefers. It’s also a good idea to ask how your work will be viewed (e.g., 3 slides at a time, 15 seconds of video, etc.). Refer to the documentation section to learn how to properly document your work (page #).
Prepare a statement about your work. Many residency programs require this as part of the application. Even if such a statement is not specifically required, it is helpful to be able to articulate your personal artistic statement. Refer to the artist statement section of this manual to learn how to draft an artist statement.
What you intend to do while in residence
Artists’ communities focus on the process, rather than the product, of art. However, some residency programs ask what you plan to do while in residence. Even if you are applying to a program that does not require such a statement, you may find it helpful to consider this. Often this is more about an ability to conceptualize how you might use your time than it is a specific work plan. Artists-in-residence can, and often do, change course once in residence—experimentation is par for the course.
While many residency programs do not charge fees to artists (some even provide stipends), it is important to plan for the financial impact of being away from your home, job and regular life for any period of time. Take the time to draft a schedule and budget for not only the duration of your residency but the time leading up to and after.
No one can tell you how you will experience your residency. No two artists’ communities are alike, and the staff and other artists-in-residence will vary as well. While some find isolation to be inspiring, others struggle with the solitude and separation from families and friends. Choosing the right residency depends on what environment is best for you, among many other things. You may find it helpful to ask friends or colleagues who have attended residency programs what their experiences have been, and many artists’ communities have “Survival Guides” that will help you to know what to expect. The MacDowell Colony’s Roadmap to a Residency offers some insight—from application to the return to life after a residency—from 10 former artists-in-residence.
Unstructured time is a gift, but it may also be your greatest enemy. No one looking over your shoulder, no crits, no deadlines. Sounds great, right? But enter that studio with its blank walls and don’t be surprised if what you experience is closer to panic than bliss. And for those of you who have been out of school for a while, juggling day jobs and the myriad other things that drag you away from your creative practice, that empty studio can be pretty scary, too. Don’t worry though—bliss comes later. Learning how to get stuck, unstuck, develop new ideas, throw them out, start new again—these are life-long tools that lead to breakthroughs and discoveries.
Whether you leave your residency with a full sketchbook, an exhibition, new friends, an armful of new work, or simply plans for new projects, you will find yourself validated and nurtured as an artist and part of a community of artists who have traveled that road ahead of you.
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You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.