I read somewhere once that cultivating inspiration is like keeping a pond filled with fish. Every new idea is equivalent to one of those fish, and each time you take one out, you need to put another one in, replenishing your inspiration pool.
Now I'm sure it doesn't take a genius to figure out that for artists, inspiration is like currency. Creative block is real, and scary, and the only real way to avoid it is to keep up a constant stream of images and experiences that stimulate the creation of ideas. We need an archive of memories and inspiration points to fall back on.
Artist residencies aim to do just that. They provide artists with a place to stay, a studio space (either shared or individual), and usually some sort of collaborative environment that artists so crucially need. Many artist-in-residence programmes have structured artist talks and open studios, to get artists engaged in talking about and showing their work.
You could think of a residency as an extended work trip for artist, where the objective is to network, develop ideas and try out new techniques.
Artist residencies tend to straddle two separate ends of a vast spectrum. On the one hand, there's fully funded residencies, during which your accommodation, travel costs, food and unlimited organic teabags are paid for. These are usually offered by established institutions (like a university), or are awarded as part of a competition. Unsurprisingly, they're pretty hard (although not impossible!) to get, especially when you're just starting out.
On the other hand, there's residencies that are funded entirely by the artist, meaning the artist has to source the funds to pay for travel, accommodation, food, and sometimes an additional residency fee to cover studio and admin costs, through personal savings, a loan, or a government grant. These are often organised by former or working artists, essentially as a small business venture. Participating artists are given a studio space, place to live, and a collaborative community in exchange for a fee. Naturally, the entry requirements for these residencies are lower and less specific, since the organisers are essentially running a business, and leave it up to you to decide whether a residency is a good fit for your career.
Aside from the living and financial structure, the day-to-day structure of residencies varies, too. I've never taken part in a fully funded residency, so I'm by no means an expert, but from what I've read on application forms and entry requirement lists, these seem to be a bit more rigidly structured. Artists are usually expected to donate a piece of work, hold a solo exhibition at the end of their residency, or develop a body of work that's in line with the residency coordinator's ethos. It makes sense, really, since an artists at a funded residency has essentially been hired by the institution to complete a series of work.
Self-funded residencies tend to be more open-ended or 'self-directed'. This means that the artist is free to work on whatever they wish, or for that matter, not produce any work at all. Residency organisers usually take into account the planning time that goes into creating meaningful and substantial work, so offer residency places as a chance for contemplation and concept development.
The costs of residencies can vary wildly, especially if they're not in your home country, as travel can start to form a big chunk of the fees. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that fully funded residencies often ask for an application fee upfront. As far as I know, these fees are non-refundable, so whether or not an artist applies for these really comes own to confidence and self-assurance. Of course, if you apply for a funded residency and are lucky enough to be accepted, you could potentially save yourself thousands, but if you're not so fortunate, these application fees can really rack up. That being said, there are still plenty of residencies that are completely free to apply.
Finding the right residency for you requires a huge amount of effort and intuition. The key questions I keep in mind when vetting potential opportunities are:
- Will this residency allow me to experience things I never would at home?
- Will I produce work or form ideas that could lead to interesting and experimental work in the future?
- Will I get the chance to meet people who could alter my perceptions of art-making and the world in general?
As such, residencies in remote locations that require me to live with locals and experience the global trends of art-making, usually get my vote. One-week residencies at a local art college - not so much. Evaluate the structure and terms of each residency to determine which is best for you, and whether it will be worth the investment. I've found that, most of the time but not always, residencies in rural locations are less expensive as living conditions are more basic.
Since my work at the moment seeks to explore the cross-cultural / universal trend of art-making, and I work best in quiet, uninterrupted places, these types of residencies suit me well. Some of the most expensive residencies I've come across are in London, Berlin and New York. Obviously these cities have established art scenes, and could potentially lead to spectacular opportunities and connections you simply wouldn't come across anywhere else. However if you're just starting out, as I am, these are perhaps better saved for further down the line when you have plenty of awards, patrons, and have perfected the art of selling yourself.
Personally I see residencies as investments in my future - like investing in a business course or a masters degree. Spending money on an experience which, from the outside seems like a long holiday, can feel really self-indulgent, and I definitely felt like this after booking my first residency in Iceland.
This isn't helped by the fact that hardly anyone outside of the art world knows what an artist residency is. Chances are, whatever artistic adventure you decide to embark on, most of the people in your life will be genuinely curious and excited for you, but there will inevitably be people who think you're deluded. Please don't ascribe to the view that residencies are a waste of time, or that they're just long holidays. Just as some people pay hundreds of pounds to attend a business seminar, you're paying to develop your work and network with other artists, which I think is a pretty great investment.
I don't have much/any money to fall back on (at least not yet), so by no means do I take opportunities lightly. Instead I place a huge amount of focus on using them to channel inspired and adventurous new work.
Why It's Worth It
Residencies may seem like a lot of money, but I always go back to that metaphor of the inspiration pool. Whilst visiting galleries and talking to artists in your home town is great, sometimes you need an intense experience to fill up that pool.
Ideas don't just materialise out of nowhere - you need to keep moving and exploring. Day-to-day routine can really kill your inspiration.
This post is intended to act as a resource for other artists who aren't quite sure what an artist residency is or how they work, so I've tried to be as un-biased as possible, but I can't end the post without saying - my first artist residency changed my life.
Before Iceland I had maybe 0.01% confidence in my ability to be taken seriously as an artist. The concept of having work in a gallery was about as real to me as becoming an astrophysicist overnight, and I carried myself with the continuous anxiety of being labelled with the dreaded word, 'hobbyist'.
Over the space of 2 months, the glorious independence of travelling alone, and having the physical and mental space to create whatever I wanted, combined to give me a completely new perspective.
I learned techniques from other artists. I sold my work, and painted my first huge canvas. For the first time I saw artists taking their work seriously. There was absolutely no pressure to work smarter or harder, no judgement or comparison, no anxiety that 'perhaps this is a waste of time and I need to get a job in sales'.
Shortly after returning to the UK from Iceland, my work was selected as a finalist in the Open Contemporary Young Artist Award 2018. I'm not adding that in just to gloat, but just to illustrate how my mindset and perspective did a complete 180. I went from believing I had no merit as I'm self-taught, to being proactive in getting my work out there and having work in a two-month long group exhibition.
I gained a sense of confidence I never thought possible.