Artist residencies can be an incredible way to expand and improve your art practice, but getting into the right one for you can be a challenge. Typically, an artist residency is a place (usually secluded) where visual artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers, or other creative professionals go to produce work for an extended amount of time. Sometimes residencies require the artist to participate in programming or donate artwork; some do not. The most competitive residencies will feed and house an artist for free, but many other residency programs must charge some fees for participation. Some artists make a career out of participating in artist residency programs; some organizations will pay an artist to create work. Whatever the format, residency programs are great place to create, network, and grow as an artist.
I’ve completed residency programs in 2012, 2013, and 2014. For each residency I was accepted into, I probably applied to nine others. A tremendous amount of research goes into finding the right programs and writing the perfect application essays, after which I anxiously wait to be accepted, rejected, or waitlisted. Each time, I’ve had to temporarily rearrange my life so I can complete these programs. My time spent in residency at the Studios of Key West, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Djerassi Resident Artist Program was creatively charged, productive, and full of networking opportunities. Through this process, I’ve learned much about how to pick the right residency, and how to use one residency experience to gain another. Here’s my advice for anyone wishing to dive into the artist residency circuit.
For residency programs in North America, you absolutely want to make sure they are a member of the Alliance of Artist Communities. AAC only lists residency programs where artists are chosen through a selection process and offer the experience for free or significantly reduced costs. Applying to programs that are AAC listed will ensure that you only work with reputable, professional organizations. The AAC website allows users to search residencies by discipline, location, accessibility, deadline, and other factors.
Your reputation as an artist also matters when applying for residency programs. One executive director told me of the “blacklist”—the names of naughty artists secretly passed between residencies. Misdemeanors that can land you on the blacklist include: refusing to leave the program at the end of the residency (even though it was wonderful, you must eventually depart), destroying property while in residence (don’t damage anything in pursuit of your art), and being generally unpleasant (residencies want people who can live together in harmony). Like any professional field, the folks who run artist residencies talk with each other, and being a fondly remembered artist will increase your chance of being chosen for more programs.
The cost to maintain an artist residency program can be quite significant for a nonprofit organization; and not all programs are able to cover these expenses through grants and donations. The expenditure per artist is often in the thousands, and the best residency programs don’t pass these costs onto the artist.
Djerassi Resident Artist Program (DRAP) in Woodside, California, charges only a nominal application fee. Maintaining their 600-acre ranch, paying for staff, and caring for the artists amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly for the nonprofit; they end up spending around $10,000 per artist. But through an endowment from the Djerassi family, and with extensive grant writing, DRAP is able to offer an incredible program at no cost to the artist.
Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, offers a program where artists are accepted into a cohort led by a master artist. ACA must pay all the usual costs to stay in operation, as well as pay the master artists for their time. ACA’s cost per artist is similar to DRAP’s; however, they lack the huge endowment to cover all of the fees. Artists end up paying a few hundred dollars for the residency (less than 10 percent of the cost), and ACA hustles to find grants to make up the rest. Some fields, such as the visual arts, seem to be better funded; writers and musicians may find themselves paying slightly more for the same residency.
MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire has an incredible endowment, and they can offer great perks to accepted artists. Low-income artists may be eligible to receive money to pay for rent back home while they are in residence. Because of this, MacDowell is probably the most competitive residency in the country, and they only allow artists to apply every two years—whether they are accepted or not.
Hambidge in north Georgia is, ostensibly, not free. All artists who apply are subject to weekly participation fees, but not everyone who applies pays them. This residency program offers a series of scholarships, and some artists end up receiving a stipend in addition to a fee waiver. Artists do not apply to specific scholarships, rather, they are considered for all scholarships with the larger pool of applicants.
Beware of residencies that cost money to participate in but do not offer financial aid. These organizations are like the “vanity press” of artist residencies, and are not well respected by more prestigious programs. When places like MacDowell and DRAP select their artists, they favor people who have participated in nationally known, funded programs—not artists who paid out of pocket to live and work somewhere exotic. Many of these programs can cost thousands of dollars, and draw in dilettantes rather than working artists.
Almost every residency program costs money to apply to. These fees are usually in the $20-40 range but are not a significant source of income for these programs (often times they just pay for the license for Slideroom, the most common application portal). When I’ve applied to ten residencies at a time, I’ve had to make serious financial decisions as to what I can and cannot afford to apply to. If I’m confident I have at least a 50-percent chance of being accepted, I will apply. If I’m pretty sure I won’t get in, I will add it into my calendar of future residencies to apply to.
Perhaps the biggest distinction between residencies is with food. The most respected residencies feed their artists, while lower-level programs expect artists to buy and prepare their own food. The politics of food at residencies vastly changes the experience artists have.
MacDowell Colony delivers lunch to artists’ studios, and artists meet for dinner in the evenings. By taking care of food, residency programs help artists focus on the work they have to do rather than on procuring and preparing dinner. The Studios of Key West, by comparison, offers private professional kitchens; however, artists must purchase and cook the food themselves. This adds a hidden cost to the residency program and takes up valuable studio time.
Residencies go to great efforts to cater to the dietary needs of artists. This does not mean that your time in residence is a chance to detox by going gluten free, vegan, or raw food only; eat and drink like you normally would back home and everyone will be happy. Having someone provide food for you is an incredible privilege, and residency chefs work very hard to please everyone’s palate. Be thankful for the food they serve you. I find that when anyone is cooking for me, I’m very happy. Despite a few overly healthy meals that made me fart prodigiously, I loved everything served to me at ACA and DRAP.
No matter how much the residency’s staff cares for artists, they are not your servants. Make an effort to help out wherever possible, especially when it comes to post-meal cleanup. Some places like DRAP assign chores, but other places are more laissez-faire. Artists who sit back and expect to be waited on hand and foot are the kind of artists who make it onto the blacklist. Mealtimes are meant to be collegial experiences, and being engaged throughout dinner is key.
As soon as you receive an acceptance letter, create a plan and budget so you can complete the residency with as little stress as possible. You will most likely have to pay for your travel to and from the residency, and most places expect you to bring your own supplies. Always ask residency organizers any cost-related questions. Examples include: If you need to venture into town, will you have to rent a car, or will they drive you? Will they expect you to make a donation while in residence (A friend told me one resident director hit him up daily for a “suggested $15 contribution.”)? Will they pick you up from the airport, or will you have to take a cab? I like to know every dollar I will have to spend in residence, and I make sure I come with enough in my bank account to cover my expenses.
Completing residencies is certainly easier for freelancers and studio artists, but I’ve met many people with full time jobs who manage to participate in artist residencies. I’ve saved up and spent all of my paid time off to complete a residency; this is very common for artists with conventional jobs. Accept that you will not make any money while in residence, and also accept that you will still have to pay your bills back home even though you are gone. With proper budgeting, any artist should be able to afford a residency.
Network as much as possible while you are in residence. I’ve met creative professionals from around the world who have given me incredible advice on how to build a sustainable career as an artist. The people I’ve met in residency have pointed me towards publishing, grant, and job opportunities; residence colleagues will become some of your biggest supporters.
Collaborate as much as possible. I believe the best art is produced when people combine their skills. The best photographs I took at DRAP used my fellow artists as models, or I documented the work these other folks were creating. Collaboration builds great “group cohesion” and leads to a better residency experience for all.
Work a lot and play even more. At each residency, I would spend hours on end in my studio making photos, writing, editing videos, or just generally getting work done. Despite the high value of peaceful studio time, I suggest spending ample time away from your workspace communing with your creative spirit. This may be as simple as hiking, practicing yoga, or venturing into town and meeting people. I also suggest trying new mediums; while at DRAP, I created many goofy-looking watercolors just for the fun of it. Locking yourself in your studio and doing just one thing is not a good way to spend time in residence.
Overall, have fun and realize that you are very blessed to be an artist-in-residence. Being accepted into a residency means that people believe in your artwork and want you to succeed. Embrace that and create something meaningful.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. He is a cofounding member of Legendary Children, Atlanta’s premier queer art collective. Terrell received an Idea Capital Grant in 2014 for his project “Sweet Tea: The Story of the Queer South.” In 2014, he found a forgotten fragment of a Keith Haring mural at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta—it was his most proud achievement. Terrell received his BFA and MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design; he also has an MA in communications from Georgia State University.