Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Not Your Mama's Residency

The following letter was shared by an artist who was recently awarded a place in a competitive residency program. For the sake of professional discretion, identifying details have been replaced with the letter X. Upon contacting them to work out the logistics of her stay, the artist was informed that some of the program’s policies and funding had changed (neither accommodations nor restrictions were mentioned on their website). After further conversations by phone and email, the program declined to negotiate a stay shorter than its standard two months. Her place will be offered to another artist, presumably one without family commitments. Given the months-long process of application, acceptance, and negotiation, this outcome is not just a disappointment but a professional setback. It will impact her ability to fabricate large-scale work for an upcoming exhibition and erases the recognition of such an award as she applies for tenure.

Dear X,

First, I want to thank you for inviting me for a residency in 2018. I was delighted to receive this honor. I spoke with X last week about some of the recent developments that are impacting whether or not I will be able to attend the residency. I’d like to share my concerns with you in this letter.

I applied to X because it was highly recommended to me by colleagues in the field. X is particularly conducive to producing large-scale sculpture and I have an important exhibition in fall 2018 featuring a large structure. I appreciate the opportunity to introduce my work to a new audience in the area, and the focused time for production in a rural area would be a welcome change from my practice in Chicago. Finally, as a mid-career sculptor who is also a mother, I find that most residencies are available primarily for emerging or childless artists who have fewer obligations. Rarely do residencies provide accommodation or the means for an artist-parent to bring their children. My friend and fellow artist, X, raved about his experience at X as a family-friendly residency. While the reasons stated above regarding timing, facilities, and location were all factors in my decision to apply, it was his glowing report of X as one that enables artist-parents to produce their work that was most attractive to me. The fellowship and generous family housing that was provided to him enabled him to produce his work and fulfill his role as a father, and is one that I felt I needed in order to make this opportunity work for me.

I was deeply saddened to learn that there is no longer any housing available for families and that children are unable to be present at the studio at any time. Additionally, the unfortunate loss of the fellowship is of great concern to me. As a parent, I wonder who could take care of my children while work, how I could afford that care, how I could possibly be away from them for such an extended period of time, and where they will stay during the course of my two-month residency. The stipend and family housing would have gone a long way toward making this possible.

As you are certainly aware, the benefits of artist fellowships are two-fold. While fellowships can make an opportunity financially feasible, they also serve as an honor. Funding for mid-career makers are few and far between in our current political climate. The chance to feature the stipend on my dossier as I apply for tenure in 2019 is particularly meaningful, as well as being an honor that can lead to other opportunities. If any small amount of funds becomes available toward the stipends in the future, it would still allow artists to have the honor of the award, if only a token of your original intentions. I also suggest that the policy of having no children or support for artist-parents be stated on the website so that future applicants can weigh that information in deciding to apply.

In light of the recent changes regarding X’s ability to accommodate artist parents, and to provide funding that could make this opportunity feasible for me, I would like to request a shorter residency of four weeks. While a two-month residency is ideal for many reasons, I feel that a shorter residency can still fulfill many of our mutual goals. Last summer I completed a two-week residency at X and found that the short time contributed to the urgency of productivity and I was able to make the most of every moment there. I made important contacts with members of the arts community, conducted research, and started artwork that is now going to be part of a solo exhibition at the same venue this summer. I propose to come to X, and bring my husband who will assist me in making the work, the scale of which will be physically difficult for me to manage alone. Having a shorter residency will significantly ease the financial burden and logistical challenges of this residency and enable me to accept this offer.

Thank you for your consideration and, again, for the invitation to a 2018 residency. I look forward to hearing from you.


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Residencies provide cultural producers with a range of important opportunities, often including the chance to enlarge their community and take creative risks. Every program is different. Some are only open to artists working in specific media, like printmaking or sculpture. A few are not handicapped-accessible. And while some are more transparent about it than others, quite a lot of the hundreds of residency programs worldwide are out of reach for artists raising children.

Researching programs with the flexibility to accommodate parenting artists can be a confusing process. Some programs quietly allow for it on a case-by-case basis and many make no mention of policies or restrictions either way. Among the few programs that do support artists with families in some capacity, that information can be hard to find and, as evidenced here, sometimes changes without warning. Underlying this is the assumption that parenting artists are the exception and not the rule. Can the arts operate beyond traditional capitalist models if they’re continually built around the myth of the lone genius?

Economic parallels between the arts and other careers are limited, since creative practice draws no reliable salary. Artists participate in residencies at their own expense, often paying for travel, residency fees, childcare, or taking time off from other, paid work. But let's look at those entrepreneurial models for a moment, since the professionalized art world seems bent on following their lead. Some would argue that you’d never expect to find a family friendly law firm or bring children to a professional conference. But in fact that’s exactly what’s underway as professionals in other, non-'creative' fields aim for more gender-balanced and productive work environments. If the arts are a space for open experimentation and social critique, it should not be so radical to imagine family life as part of the broader creative community.

participants at Kala Art Institute, which offers support for parenting artists
To be sure, there are practical reasons why not all residencies can accommodate artists with family commitments.  In 2013 the Sustainable Arts Foundation started a granting program to support programs working to creatively address challenges like safety and shared resources. Some provide children's activities and family housing during special sessions, while others offer flexible scheduling or childcare awards that allow parents to participate without bringing kids along. The Foundation states that “the goal of this program is not only to reward organizations with original and effective solutions, but to share the results, so that other residencies might learn from them as well.” Their list of funded projects serves as a valuable resource for any program working to better serve the creative community, as well as for artist-parents researching accessible residency options.

As Cultural ReProducers we recognize that incorporating children into the practice of creating culture is not always simple. We also know that there's a lot to be gained in that process. Not all programs can or will realistically support a diverse artistic community that includes parents, and that's fine. What we ask for is clear information about what residencies can and cannot offer so that we can do the same.

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