Given that her work for nearly a decade has been about promoting artist residencies of all kinds, and championing residencies both in the art world and on Capitol Hill, it seems odd to discover that Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director of the Alliance of Artist Communities, can actually come up with reasons why an artist shouldn’t do a residency.
by Liz Georges
“I’m not a strong supporter of the idea that you do a residency just because it’s going to look good on your resume,” she says candidly, “not that an artist shouldn’t care about that, but that it shouldn’t be the motivation for pursuing a residency, or a particular residency program because of its name recognition. I feel like it’s a really important gift that an artist is given when they receive a residency, and taking advantage of that opportunity should be the motivation -- that you’re going there to explore your creative practice, to produce work, and to really dig in, in a way that you might not otherwise have a chance to do.”
Strokosch’s concern stems from not just high-mindedness about the place of residencies in the art world, but from more pragmatic concerns regarding the right fit between the artist and the residency. “Part of my concern when I hear artists talking about having something that they can put on their resume is that it can take the place of looking for residencies that are going to be a good match for them, in terms of aesthetic, the style and personality of the place, and the opportunities that artists may find in that particular community. All those sorts of things that make a residency a good match really don’t have anything to do with how famous the place is, and there are so many great residency programs that you’ve never heard of” she says.
In talking about residencies, how to select them, and how to apply for them, this idea of “fit” – that artists should be as selective about which residencies to apply to as residency programs are about which artists are selected – emerges as central in Strokosch’s thinking, not just for artists but also for the residencies themselves. “If given the chance in an application, it’s really important that you show why you’re interested in that particular residency. I think a lot of artists miss an opportunity when they make a very generic statement about wanting time and space to work on a project that could just as easily be copied and pasted from a dozen different residency applications. And the residency directors want to know why the artist is interested in this particular place, whether it’s wanting to be in a certain geographic area, whether it’s a residency program that is focused on the arts and sciences and how that fits in with that person’s creative practice, whatever the reason is – because that’s an indication that this is going to be a good match for the artist and for the residency program. It’s a chance for you to let some of your own personality and interests come through in an artist statement or project proposal. The strength of the artist’s work will always be the most important part of the application, but talking about why this particular residency is compelling can be really critical for getting selected once you get through the work sample review part of the process.”
What does an artist look at in determining whether a residency is the right fit? “It’s kind of like picking a college. You look at the campus, you see who else is there, you read their value statements, you see what they have to offer and you kind of get a feel for what’s right for you,” Strokosch says. As for specifics, once you’ve identified residencies that offer support for your discipline or specific facilities and equipment you need, Strokosch recommends thinking about the reality of the experience itself. “How social is it? Do you want to meet people from different art forms? Are you interested in being in an urban area? How rural the actual site is can be really important. There are a lot of places where it’s hard to even imagine how solitary and remote they actually are. I heard from a New York-based artist who really wanted to get away and be in nature. And then when she went to a very rural residency, she couldn’t believe how loud the birds were and she couldn’t get any work done! I think we all romanticize different kinds of places, but it’s important to be realistic about how well suited we are for some environments over others.”
Apparently, Strokosch learned this lesson from experience in her own career as a musician. “I was in-residence at Ucross years ago, which is in northeastern Wyoming on a 22,000 acre cattle ranch. I didn’t have a car, so just think about what that really means. Not only can I not walk to a coffee shop if I get stuck or frustrated and just need to get out of my studio, but other than dinner with the other artists, there’s nowhere to go and nothing else to do. It was an incredible experience and actually the perfect place for me, but not every artist thrives in that kind of remote setting.”
“It’s important, too, that artists understand what other expectations there are,” Strokosch continues. “No artist should be surprised if they learn that they are asked to give a slide talk or give a reading or teach a workshop or visit a school. For some residencies, it’s very low-key. For example, at Jentel -- another residency program in Wyoming -- they ask their visual artists and writers to give an informal presentation in downtown Sheridan at one point during their 3-week long residency. It’s very casual and low-pressure, but not every artist is interested in doing that, so even a really low key expectation can make it or break it for a lot of artists. It shouldn’t be something you’re dragging your feet through or that you aren’t prepared for, and it’s important that the residency be really clear about what’s expected.”
In fact, increased community engagement is one of the trends over the past ten years that Strokosch cites when discussing how the residency community has changed. “There are still lots of places that are based on the private retreat kind of model. But many more places now encourage the artist to engage the community in some way – from developing public art to participating in open studios and festivals to tending bar at events to just encouraging the artists to spend time out and about. The shift in the field has been really interesting because when it first started happening there was a lot of resistance from some residency directors, particularly because some of the motivation was coming from funders who didn’t value the private, ‘no strings attached’ approach from residency programs. But there are so many different residency models these days and I think we’re in a really healthy place right now because many artists have responded to this shift saying, ‘I want to engage the community, I want to meet new people in different cities, or, I have a creative practice that involves the public.’ For artists who want to just hunker down in the studio, there are so many wonderful opportunities for that still. And for artists who want to engage more with the public, there are places for that as well.”
Another important series of trends Strokosch cites surround the issue of fitting a residency into a hectic modern life. “There are a lot of studio-only residencies, particularly in urban areas, that don’t require an artist to go away but still offer local artists a kind of community and facilities and sometimes professional development opportunities, so that local artists can be served in those ways without having to leave home. And there are more and more of those coming online all the time,” Strokosch says. The most prevalent trend Strokosch notes, however, is shorter-term residencies. “It’s not uncommon for programs that used to average 6 to 8 weeks in duration to now have artists asking for just 2- or 3-week-long residencies. People are just trying to make it fit into vacation time, or whatever time they can squeeze in between other things. It’s the reality for many artists, and there can be really wonderful transformative experiences in a very short time. There are people who have done one-week residencies who still get more done than they would have working for months at home,” she says.
The shorter terms also open up the world of residencies to a broader audience. “I think it’s especially important that there are shorter residencies particularly for artists who have families, so that they don’t get left out of the residency world during the time that their kids are growing up. We’re just beginning to see more flexibility in the residency field to accommodate that, since there are lots of parents who can only consider being away from their families for a week or two at a time. ”
Scheduling a year’s worth of artists is difficult for the residency programs, too. “There’s still a really long lead time from when you apply to when you get in, and that makes it difficult for artists to plan ahead in that way, to know where they’re going to be a year from now or six months from now, or what their job is going to look like. Being flexible on both sides – artists and residency programs – can really be key to making all these things work.”
Aside from the good news that you may be able to have a life and have a residency, Strokosch also has another interesting message for mid-career and established artists. “Only about 10 percent of residencies are specifically for emerging artists. A lot of residency programs actually try to curate a mix of career stages to be in residence at the same time so that there’s an energy around that and an exchange that happens across different professional levels,” she says. “I hear from a lot of mid-career and more established artists that after doing what they’ve been doing for a long time, they need to really refresh their work, or move forward in a very different direction by trying a new discipline or working with materials they haven’t worked with before. Because residencies are kind of safe space for experimentation, artist can find residencies to be a real turning point where they can shift their careers in a new way.”
Although the Alliance of Artists Communities’ primary function is supporting the organizations that offer artist residencies, connecting artists to residencies is an important part of its work as well. “There are several hundred residency programs listed on our website and with a new launch in the coming weeks, there are going to be even more. The online database is free and it allows you to search by discipline, by special equipment and facilities, by location, all kinds of different things. And we’re also starting to document a lot of tips for artists – like applying for residencies, finding funding for residencies -- a lot of that stuff that we have done anecdotally through workshops will be freely available on our website for all artists.”
And what are residencies looking for from artists? “The main thing for every residency program that I’ve ever talked to, and this has been hundreds of them, is that the work samples are the most important thing,” Strokosch says. “So even if a place asks for a resume, an artist statement, statement of intent, recommendation letters, any of that stuff, the most important thing is the work. I think it’s really important to stress this because there’s this perpetual myth that it’s all about who you know or where you’ve shown or who your publisher or your agent is, and that’s how you get into a residency. But it’s really not. It’s really about the quality of the work. I don’t know that we’ll ever fully lay that myth to rest, but I’m working on it.”
Caitlin Strokosch, along with Sarah Workneh, Executive Director of Skowhegan, and artists Victoria Fu and Chrisitan Benefiel, will be participating in a panel discussion hosted by WPA, “Artist Residencies and Retreats: Making it Work for You,” on Tuesday, January 31, 2012, 6:30-8pm at Abramson Family Recital Hall at American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW. To RSVP, email Membership Director Liz Georges at email@example.com.
January 12, 2012