PARASITIC / SYMBIOTIC
It shouldn’t be underestimated by anyone, especially by arts organisations or by artists themselves, that there is considerable investment of time, planning, thought and effort involved in delivering any kind of art event or programme if you mean to do it properly. And until you’ve done it yourself it’s very easy to discount or ignore entirely the amount of work involved in organising arts projects, “free” or otherwise, whether they’re one-offs or part of a long term scheme or strategy. It’s work that will, moreover, go mostly unnoticed by your audience if you’re doing your job correctly. But there are always costs, even if your audience can’t see them.
Visible or otherwise, it’s self-defeating for an artist, curator or gallery to not budget their time, labour and material costs realistically. This very much includes working out how much even a “free” offering really costs everyone involved: a-n has been recommending this for years and providing guideline figures, as have the Scottish Artists Union, to name just two organisations who’ve attempted to provide some sensible, credible leadership on the subject in the notable and deliberate absence of any such thing from the art world itself or in the formal education of artists. The Arts Council of England used to offer this sort of information until they were forbidden to do so (at least directly) by the government on the pretext that it was “anti-competitive”. The economic assumption here seems to be a highly simplistic undergraduate Randian one: that competition’s sole purpose is to drive down costs to the biggest, apex employers without regard to any possible benefits or wellbeing for their supply chain, to consumers, to society as a whole, or even to the capitalist system as a whole.
There nothing at all wrong with openly covering expenditure and seeking donations or monetary support directly, whether it’s a more or less literal passing around of the hat at the end of the evening, something like Kickstarter, or an organisation charging a subscription or membership fee in return for clearly defined services, provision or representation. It’s probably increasingly vital for us all (i.e. those who work in the arts and/or think the arts have value) to cost our projects realistically and source our funding more creatively and flexibly. We should also to contribute financially– and voluntarily– as appreciative audiences when we can, if only to reinforce the notion that even things that are free at the point of delivery have cost somebody something, at some point.
However, the rapid rise of the paid-for “artist residency” has nothing to do with the value of anybody’s time or abilities, and everything to do with greedy chancers descending like vultures on a near constant and ever-growing supply of fresh meat. A real Artist in Residence or Artist Fellow is a temporarily but fully employed and paid (albeit freelance) provider of research, art work or whatever have you. Although the legitimate fellowships and residencies can be excellent ways for an artist to sustain and develop their practice, these opportunities are hard to come by due to lack of financial resources, because of a pervasive societal lack of understanding about what an artist does or is for, and because these are genuine work for which the artists are chosen on merit and not on their ability to pay. I’ve been lucky enough to participate in several extremely good, well-supported and prestigious residency and fellowship schemes (that I didn’t pay for or subsidise in any way), so I’m also lucky enough to know from experience what they should look like and how they should work.
Conversely, if you’re paying entirely out of your own pocket for the opportunity to visit and work in a particular place then this is absolutely not in any way a professional form of artistic practice. At best it’s curated short term studio rental; at worst, little better than a pretentious, snobbish holiday or a salve to one’s own vanity and ego because you get to play at being an artist with a proper studio and whatnot.
There are a very large number of residencies that operate somewhere in the middle as well, ones that don’t pay but provide short term accommodation and space at no cost to the artist. We could call these sympathetic or symbiotic arrangements, ones in which everyone involved has a chance of gaining something and giving something. These partially subsidised opportunities potentially are of use to artists, but unfortunately they tend to flock together with the “you pay us, you pay for everything else as well” purely exploitative type. I don’t know of any providers of listings or artist opportunities who make it particularly clear that there is a spectrum of financial relationships in this field, beyond saying “paid” or “unpaid”. “Unpaid” is particularly unhelpful because it can cover both a vanity painting holiday in Tuscany and a fair but completely non-monetary exchange of resources or skills. This laxity of language– such as the use of a word like “residency” to cover things that clearly aren’t residencies– adds to the difficulty of distinguishing one type from the other without serious digging. I’m sure this is entirely deliberate in many cases. I find it hard to believe that having one of the latter (i.e. paid for by the artist) type on their CV helps any artist who wants to be taken seriously; quite the reverse, I would have thought, because it marks you out as a desperate amateur, probably one with more money than sense. These so-called residencies increasingly have considerable application fees, so they’re even milking people who aren’t selected and never will be.
So this all boils down to two quite simple dichotomies:
- Dichotomy 1- Relationships between arts organisations or providers and artists can be mutual, sympathetic, quid pro quo, symbiotic… or these relationships can be predatory, vampiric, parasitic.
- Dichotomy 2- Either you’re a working artist and the money flows towards you… in which case you should have the rights and dignity of any other employee. Or you pay to practice your hobby and you’re a customer… in which case you should expect reasonable, globalised standards of commercial transparency and service.
In most areas of our capitalist society, a customer is not expected to provide a CV, pay an application fee, provide references, book a year in advance, or submit to a (self-appointed, highly subjective and questionably qualified) curatorial panel, or wait three to six months or more for a reply. A discussion of this subject on Twitter elicited an absurd comparison with booking an ordinary holiday. Expedia, Center Parcs, Thomas Cook or your chosen hotel don’t expect to curate their customers. Their only criterion is that you’ve paid. The customer pays for a service and they expect to get it, no matter what the company thinks of their track record or their life choices. In return, if you don’t get what you’ve paid for then you are within your legal and moral rights to seek financial, legal or other redress. Why should a fully paid-for artist residency be any different? It’s what one might call a “soft” service, one with ill-defined boundaries, but it is nonetheless a service. Take the money and shut up: you don’t get to call yourself a curator when you’ve got your hand out to artists for their money.
By way of an example, in spring 2012 emails and DMs related to a so-called residency in Birmingham were flying around between artists of my acquaintance, along with general howls of ridicule and outrage at the shameless audacity of a person charging £1000 to spend a month in somebody’s flat and have four meetings with a self-appointed curator. Subsequent discussion on Twitter followed a similar path. Obviously subletting a flat is OK, so is calling yourself a curator (sometimes). Calling this offering an “Artist Residency” is both pompous and disingenuous, although anybody who believes any puff claiming that Birmingham is “England’s second city” probably deserves to be ripped off.
Cursory research showed that commercial rents for one bedroom or studio flats in central Birmingham started at about £800 pcm as of April 2012, so an artist could theoretically roll their own Brummy “residency” [sic] instead and still have £200 left over. They could take some of it to the pub and buy a round; they’d probably make more interesting and productive acquaintances than any they’re likely to find on the magical Birmingham “art map” that their grand also buys them.
This is just one example that for some reason seemed to be particularly (albeit mostly privately) viral and triggering for a lot of people in the British arts community on one particular occasion. There are numerous others in the UK and around the world, sometimes offered by people and places who should definitely know better; in any given month there seems to be a dozen or many more of these things on offer. The Banff Centre in Canada, for example, is an application of the vanity residency strategy on an absolutely massive and very lucrative scale. Their description of themselves as “globally respected” smacks somewhat of the lady doth protest too much. Respected by whom? Undoubtedly they provide a lot of useful and welcome paid work for tutors and other staff, but the benefits to a participant (beyond the not insignificant and undeniable benefit of having a nice holiday) are less clear, and the strict detail provided about accommodations, meals and other domestic arrangements clearly shows their courses for what they really are: bourgeois Butlins.