Residencies: practices and paradoxes

The terms of reference for today’s artists’ residencies are wide and various. Examples of the polarities artists are now presented with range from a considered opportunity over several months for artists to take stock and reflect with little or no expectation of ‘public’ output, to those residencies in which artists are expected find a solution to a community, education or arts ‘problem’ in a short time, often for a very small fee.

Drawing on evidence from the past in the UK, this essay attempts to provide a brief analysis how the landscape and drivers for artists’ residences have changed, highlighting where arts policy and the changing political and economic climate might have impacted on the various expectations for, and manifestations of, the residency format. By raising and commenting on the issues arising and highlighting an example of one artist’s commitment to set a new, more equal context for artists’ residencies, it is intended to contribute insight to inform future residency practices and arts policies.

Definitions and origins

Research (Dahl, 1987) concluded that residencies were essentially about two kinds of relationship: “On the one hand there are those residencies which are exclusively about the artist and the artist’s activity. On the other, there are those exclusively concerned with people and people’s activities. The difference is the degree to which the ‘clients’ – the people whom the residency project serves – are considered to be an active element in it.”

He described as ‘artist-centred’ those residencies which were either ‘transferred studio’ or ‘commission-based’, and as ‘people-centred’ a residency such as for a community artist, the ‘response requirement’ type (in which the characteristics of the situation are the lever for new work), and the ‘consultation-type’ (where artists’ creativity can effect change). His additional description of the ‘interchange type’ – a residency which balances the interests of artist and public – probably comes closest to what we might now recognise as a ‘socially-engaged’ artists’ practice.

However, we must look to the pioneering work of the Artists’ Placement Group (APG) in the ’60-70s as the forerunner to artists’ residency practices in the UK. Initiated by artist Barbara Stevini, the group also included John Latham, Barry Flanagan, David Hall and Jeffrey Shaw.[i] APG’s aim was to reposition the role of the artist within a wider social context, including in government, commerce and industry. The brief for Garth Evans’ placement in 1969 at the British Steel Corporation was simply to “carry out his own work as a sculptor in relation to the material of the industry.” While he was categorically not expected to be working for BSC – his funding came from an education budget - he did in the process interview apprentices on-site and produce a paper for the Iron and Steel Federation. [ii]

As regards considering the relationship between APG’s approach and current residency practices, it is notable that APG did not operate through a typical patronage or sponsorship model and seek funding to conduct a programme of activities. Rather, each project was unique, the artist receiving a fee for undertaking a placement to which APG added a 15-20% fee to cover its organisational costs. Significantly, there was no consistently-applied residency formula. Each situation was individually negotiated, with the placement process comprising an initial period of some months of paid-for time for the artist to conduct a feasibility study and familiarise themselves with the specific context, leading to formulation of the artistic proposal for the longer placement to follow.

Artists involved in APG were intended to function as independent observers within the organisations which they placed, with nature of work produced developing directly from being on site. It was John Latham who called artists placed such contexts an ‘incidental person’ and “an engineer of conceptual material… for which he (sic) carries responsibility”. [iii]

UK Year of the artist

Although it was artists including APG who led the way in conceptualising artists’ placements as a new way of understanding the artist’s role in society and in which the artist’s practice remained at the heart, a substantially different approach was taken for the UK’s Year of the Artist (YOTA) 2000/01. The overall ambition of this venture was to: “Place the artist at the centre of society, to create a better understanding of the role of the artist, to establish new partnerships between every section of society and the arts, to empower artists and communities and to have a lasting impact for their benefit.”

While the original proposals for YOTA as devised by an independent working group of artists and practitioner-based organisations had been broadly-based and encompassed artists’ development, new art projects, in-depth research and strategies for raising public awareness, this was translated by the regional arts boards concerned with activating the initiative specifically into a simple residency programme because, as an internal paper from the regional arts board Chairs group revealed,  it was felt that this would: “enable artists to work alongside more ‘normal’ people who do not at present recognise the way arts can and do impinge on their lives”.

Amongst YOTA’s highly-ambitious aims was a desire to provide significant opportunities for artists to initiate and develop projects and to demonstrate and promote good practice in the commissioning and employment of artists. Within the detailed objectives were aspirations to deliver lasting opportunities for artists creatively, structurally and financially; extend opportunities for artists to experiment and replenish their creative energy; and to help expand the arts economy and support attempts to create new opportunities for employing artists, including action to improve the economic status of the arts and artists.

Artists’ pay and conditions

To a lesser or greater degree, improving artists’ pay had been an aspiration of arts policy-makers since the mid ‘80s, and YOTA might have presented itself as a perfect vehicle to finally make this happen, both during Year itself and beyond. This was because an important principle in the ambition to improve the economic status of artists was establishment of a minimum rate of pay for artists of £150 per day (£20,000 a year). This was intended to be a core legacy, upheld by the arts councils and boards and embedded into arts practices as a legacy for the future.

However, although this minimum rate of pay for artists was recommended, the Arts Council (ACE) evaluation report by Hutton and Fenn (2002) revealed that in some cases that artists whose projects ran into financial difficulties effectively subsidised their residencies by taking a cut in fees. An approximate calculation based on the number of artist days for the Year overall and the amount spent on fees produced a mean daily figure instead of £76: roughly half of the intended minimum rate. Led by a newly-appointed network of YOTA co-ordinators appointed to solicit and assess applications from artists through a mainly open submission meant that although £15m was invested by the arts bodies in 1,000 artists’ residencies, just £4.2m (38%) went on the individual artists’ projects and the remainder on general costs.

It terms of whether YOTA achieved the all-important artistic ambition of replenishing artists’ creative energy, the Arts Council’s evaluation report forms shows that although most artists had gained new skills or developed their artistic ability in some way, some felt the formulaic constraints of the residency model and short length of most residencies had prevented them achieving the heightened creativity they had hoped for. Furthermore, an independent evaluation by Stephens (2001) concluded that YOTA had in effect taken artistic control away from artists and the artist-led and put it in the hands of arts managers this: “signalling the development [more widely] of artists’ residencies as a management tool [which could be employed] to deliver arts policy.”

The treatment and expectations of artists for YOTA contributed in effect to a general momentum which has served to reclassify the role of artists away from a research-based ‘art for art’s sake’ practice into becoming instruments of economic and social and community benefit, their creatively tempered and controlled by the ambitions and needs of institutions. Within arts policies in England at least, the nuanced applications of the term residency, as identified by Dahl and tested by APG in the past, have largely given way to a ‘contract for services’ approach which is a characteristic of the creative industries as a whole.

Artists in the creative industries

Under the new-liberalism of New Labour, a Green Paper in 2001 outlined the look and feel of a new cultural economy, one in which the new patterns of freelance and self-employed work were set out as a model for others in the industry – including those in the visual arts - to emulate. However as research by McRobbie (2001) concluded: “The neoliberalism of the cultural economy under New Labour seems likely to be the model for some time. And yet the myriad of freelancers, part-timers, short-termers and contract workers who sustain the model who have nothing to lose but their talents know that their way of life and work is, over the long term, utterly unsustainable.”

Portfolio working and the need for artists to hold down at one time three, or even four often short-term projects (which artists’ residencies nowadays often are) has compounded the issue of low pay and career uncertainty for artists. McRobbie (2002) has pointed out a key downside of creative industries (and thus the visual arts) as a talent-led and social network-driven arts economy, is that: “it irons out any dissent… It’s not cool to be ‘difficult’”. Many artists will agree privately that in the current climate (in England at least) the misgivings they might have about what they are offered and expected to achieve against the size of the fee is must be privately managed and any difficulties carefully concealed, even from peers.

Equality of opportunity

Women now make up 70% of the UK’s visual arts workforce as a whole and amongst artists this same percentage holds true. This trend is likely to continue because there are more than twice as many female students than males leaving UK undergraduate fine art courses each year.[iv] While evaluation of YOTA did quantify the take-up of residencies by artists from ethnic minorities and those with disabilities, there was no data provided in the Arts Council’s evaluation report on gender balance. At first sight, however, it might seem that the portfolio working and synthesised visual arts practices that have developed since the Millennium and which are the norm now might be more favourable to women.

However, there are conflicting opinions about where the actual disadvantages are to be found within the creative industries as a whole which are pertinent to this essay. While her research pertains to new media workers, Gill’s assertions (2011) may also resonate with the context in which visual artists find themselves, where the work which is available: “calls forth or incites into being a new ideal worker-subject whose entire existence is built around work. She must be flexible, adaptable, sociable, self-directing, and able to work for days and nights at a time without encumbrances or needs and must commodify herself and others and recognise ……that every interaction is an opportunity for work. In other words for this modernised worker-subject, ‘life is a pitch’.” Significantly, McRobbie (2016) considers the longer-term impact for her predominantly female students (at a top London art school) who are: “part of a global demographic of young women determined to life a life of their own. What is not on their mind is the question of motherhood and grappling with a career and children.”

Furthermore, research by Nelligan and Morgan has coined the term ‘labile labour’ to describe the need for creative workers, if they wish to survive in turbulent labour markets, to be mobile, spontaneous, malleable and capable of being aroused by new vocational possibilities. These researchers identified the four key qualities that such labour requires as being comfortable with the condition of incessant job seeking; being willing to ‘rebrand’ and improve themselves in response to the changing ecology; being excited by serendipity; and prepared to endure the scrutiny and arbitrary judgement of the gatekeepers. They have thus concluded that because these characteristics are most often found in women, it is their male counterparts who are in fact the more disadvantaged by the contemporary environment for creative work.

While the modus operandi of women in the creative arts may be more amenable in terms of being able to secure the work available, the rates offered or artists’ projects in the public sector clearly do not acknowledge their family circumstances. The £150 a day intended as a minimum rate in 2000 and championed by arts funders as a benchmark for good practice is now often offered in 2016 as a flat rate, regardless of artists’ experience level and their particular overhead costs. Despite Arts Council England’s assertion that artists should be paid fairly and properly [v], artists’ projects such as at Kingsgate Art Space in the West Midlands [vi] which have been funded through ACE’s own Grants for the Arts scheme, offer what is a substantially out-of-date rate. [vii] Artist Emma Smith whose practice predominantly comprises undertaking residencies in the public sector and who regularly puts in 12-15 hour days and rarely takes holidays has observed that: “funding [bodies] are always looking to get more-and-more for less-and-less [money].”[viii] She has acknowledged that having a child and remaining an artist would present a conflict.

Female artists working in the gallery sector are faring no better. When it comes to juggling childcare and art production costs, many of today’s up-and-coming female artists find themselves both time- and cash-poor. The burgeoning careers of many of them can stall as they grapple with the practicalities of having a family and managing the expectations of the art world that artists are continually available to undertake commissions and projects wherever they may be, while active and visibly networking, whether nationally or internationally.

As a direct response to residency opportunities which do not acknowledge the circumstances of artists with family commitments, artist and mother Nicola Smith (aka We Are Resident has been researching a new micro-research residency which is specifically ‘family-friendly’. Supported by Arts Council England and Finland’s Tampere Artists’ Association, a two-week fully-funded opportunity was offered, aimed specifically at an artist (male or female) from north-west England whose family or personal circumstances limited their participation in the usual residency opportunities. By widely communicating her intentions and findings [ix] and demonstrating the value of the approach she has adopted, it can only be hoped that such ‘family friendly’ opportunities for artists will be replicated elsewhere, as part of achieving equality of opportunity across the visual arts.

Conclusion

This essay has attempted to provide a brief analysis of the history and contemporary environment for artists’ residencies and to indicate how the appropriation of the residency format by arts managers as a tool for delivering policies for audience development and social inclusion has been to the detriment both to the need of artists for concerted time and space in which to experiment and take risk and to their financial status.

Furthermore, while through funding organisations to programme residencies the arts policy-makers may have recognised that artists’ residencies contribute to raising awareness of the value of art and artists to society as a whole, I am unaware of any evidence being systematically collected or disseminated by the arts councils (or their programme collaborators) which might quantify this. The Arts Council’s own analysis of visual arts audience development remains based predominantly on public attendance at institutions such as galleries, museums and heritage centres.

Bibliography

Culture and Creativity: the next ten years, Green Paper, DCMS, 2001

Dahl, D (1987). What are Residencies for? in ed Butler D, Making Ways: the artist’s guide to surviving and thriving. (2nd edition). Sunderland: AN Publications.

Gill, R (2011). “Life is a Pitch”: Managing the Self in New Media Work in Deuze, M ed, Managing Media Work. London: Sage pp249-262

Hutton, L, Fenn, C (2002). Year of the Artist – Evaluation of the programme in England, Research report 26. London: Arts Council England.

McRobbie, A (2001). ‘Everyone is Creative’: artists as new economy pioneers. www.opendemocracy.net [accessed 05/06/2016]

McRobbie, A (2002). Clubs to Companies: Notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up worlds. Cultural Studies, 16 (4) pp516-147

Morgan, G, Nelligan P, (2015) Labile labour – gender, flexibility and creative work in The Sociological Review, 63:S1 pp66-83.

Stephens, K, (2001). 'Artists in residence - past, present and future: report and recommendations', Centre for Cultural Policy and Management, University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Notes

[i] For more information see the Artists Placement Group archive and conference report 

[ii] See Context is half the work 

[iii] Extract from an APG statement on displayed in Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-79, Tate Gallery May-August 2016 

[iv] Drawn from evidence cited in my article for The Guardian May, 2016

[v] This aspiration was published in Arts Council policies from 2014 and is measured in the funding agreements with National Portfolio Organisations – those which receive revenue funding for a fixed term.

[vi] Three, six-week residency commissions which included the expectation that participants would spend additional time undertaking formal training sessions were offered for 2016 at £150 a day for 10 days and £300 to cover all other costs, via the Arts Council’s own online jobs service 

[vii] Taking the sum of £150 in 2000 and quantifying how much it should be in 2015 to have kept up with UK inflation and changing economic circumstances gives the range of £209-£275 depending on which economic yardstick is employed (GDP providing the lower figure and the share of GDP the higher one). This would seem to represent a considerable underpayment to artists nowadays against the 2000 benchmark of good practice which was established by the Arts Council for Year of the Artist. 

[viii] See Emma Smith video interview

[ix] See Nicola Smith’s We are Resident blog

[x] See Taking Part surveys for information on scope

Commissioned and first published by TransArtists in Station to Station, Dirty talks: Money September 2016