I’m sitting in my studio at the Vermont Studio Center, an artist residency program located in Johnson, Vermont. I’m at a desk strewn with small lengths of hardwood flooring, which I’m using as panels for a series of paintings I’m working on while I’m here (through the end of July). To my right is a window looking out onto a grass lawn and a bed of tiger lilies. The sun is shining but it’s not too hot; fluffy white clouds peek up from behind the forest of maple trees on the hill. A robin occasionally lands on the railing of the balcony outside the window, keeping me company. It is undeniably idyllic.
To get here, I drove pretty much the entire breadth of the country. Starting in Flagstaff, Arizona, I first drove out to California, camping with my family in Yosemite National Park, watching my sister graduate from her graduate program in psychology in San Francisco, visiting old friends in Humboldt County, and finally attending the opening reception of my friend James Angello‘s MFA thesis exhibition at UC Davis. James and I were both scheduled to attend the Vermont Studio Center residency starting July 5th, an unplanned coincidence although it did help me to confirm my decision to attend.
I’ve previously attended VSC, in August of 2007, just after completing my graduate work at MICA. I reapplied two years ago with the intention of attending this time last year, but other opportunities came up and VSC was kind enough to allow me to defer my residency until now. Even so, and even after putting down a deposit, I wasn’t sure I was going to attend again. Unless one gets a full fellowship (I didn’t, James did), it’s not an inexpensive program, upwards of $2,000 for a four-week residency, even with the partial fellowships and work study assistance they award. In 2007, MICA was willing to cover the remaining portion of the cost for their graduating MFAs, so it was free for me then. This year it’s out of pocket, to say nothing of travel expenses.
Those who know me know that I will deliberate to the point of agonizing over even trivial decisions, so for me, the question of whether to spend three grand or more on a cross-country trip to an artist residency was obviously the subject of some rumination. Ultimately, of course, I decided to attend (I am here), but I had some good arguments with myself over the decision. It’s the kind of decision about which you can hardly ask anyone else for advice: their answer will be more a reflection of their own ideals than their perception of your situation, and also, as with any sort of travel, of course your friends will say “You should go!” But they won’t help you pay off your credit card after you get back.
In this two-part article, I’m going to share some observations on artist residencies, to help you decide if the benefits outweigh the costs, for you. Spoiler alert, I’m going to conclude by saying that it’s a personal decision that only you can make for yourself. And of course you already know that I have, three times now, decided that it was right for me, in my circumstance, at that time. But good advice isn’t a matter of telling a person what conclusion to reach; rather it is a matter of sharing information and perspective to allow them to reach their own conclusion. I hope to do just that.
Artist residencies have an odd place in the landscape of contemporary artmaking practices. In some ways they echo, and continue, the strategies and problems of graduate programs. Their selective admission practices make them a coveted piece of resume fodder, while their price tag can make them a luxury of the privileged. Of course, not all residencies are expensive: some (and some of the most desirable) are subsidized, some even including room, board, and a stipend. And not all are competitive, although most at least present the appearance of being so. The same is true, incidentally, of graduate programs: some are fully funded for anyone accepted, and others are fairly easy to get into. Unfortunately for those interested, there isn’t much if any overlap between the easy-to-get-in programs and the fully funded ones. Full funding draws an extensive pool of applicants, which creates competition. Nor is an expensive program a guarantee of easy admission: even costly programs, if prestigious, can be highly competitive.
So what’s the fuss? What is it that these residencies offer that justifies their cost and the trouble of applying? Couldn’t one just take the same amount of time away from one’s other responsibilities, stay home, and make art? In theory, of course, one could. And this is what the most productive artists do, day in and day out. But in practice, it’s hard to say no to obligations, to a spouse, kids, an employer, and to well-meaning friends who want to go to a movie, the beach, to get a drink. One of the advantages of a residency seems to be its very inconvenience: traveling far from home, you’re literally unable to do anything if your son gets sick or an emergency comes up at work. In effect, the principal advantage of an artist residency is that it short-circuits our sense of priority. By deciding in advance to make ourselves unavailable for a length of time, we make an irrevocable decision to prioritize art above all else for a certain length of time.
And there is, of course, the resume padding. It’s all too easy to dismiss this. Ambition has a dirty connotation, although, as Commodus reminded us (in Gladiator), it can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Even if we’re doing fine in terms of productivity, making work in our studios, there’s a sort of arms race of resume lines. We think that the more we do, professionally, the better we are. This can lead to a peacock’s tail sort of phenomenon, where we’re so busy being busy, filling out that resume, adding lines, and making sure to post all about it on Facebook so everybody knows how successful we are, that we barely have time to make the work. When teaching opportunities, galleries, etc., form an expectation of an impressive resume, the artist who stays in the studio may be passed over in favor of the one who attends the residency. This, at least, is the perception. It’s probably true to some extent with regard to teaching jobs, and certainly is a factor in promotion and tenure once hired. With regard to galleries it’s probably an exaggerated perception, and it’s ultimately the work that counts. But in the mind of a struggling artist, someone who has been productive and believes in his or her work (at least in between the inevitible bouts of crippling doubt), it can become a powerful fear.
And then there’s networking. Who knows when and where you’ll meet the person who introduces you to the curator who gets you the show you’ve been dreaming of? A residency seems the optimal place to make this sort of connection, and in reviewing their advertisements they often push the sense of community and the lasting connections this can create. The reality of this community, and the duration of these connections, probably varies from program to program.
Residencies offer a variety of “added value” amenities as well. Skowhegan, for example, has a fresco painting workshop. Most have some sort of visiting artist program, figure models, and educational or recreational opportunities outside of the studio time which, in theory, forms the bread and butter of the program. Some provide housing and meals, others are a work space only.
Those are some of the reasons to attend. In Part 2, I’ll talk about some questions you should ask yourself before deciding whether a residency is right for you. I’m going to go paint now.
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