Envisioning the future of artist residencies

This winter Frame collaborated with the Academy of Fine Arts, Uniarts Helsinki and the HIAP Helsinki International Artist Programme to organize Residencies Reflected, a three-day symposium that set out to investigate and articulate the position of residencies within the ecosystem of contemporary art, as well as their relations to wider societal changes in the current political climate.

The symposium opened on the 16th of November with a public event and lecture at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki and continued over two days as an intensive retreat at HIAP on the island of Suomenlinna. A total of 121 art professionals from 24 countries took part in the presentations and discussions, creating new networks deliberating shared topics, triumphs and concerns within the arena of international residency programmes.


Concentrating on the ‘common’

The retreat in Suomenlinna was kicked off on the 17th of November by the keynote lecture, A Caravan of Residencies – Beyond Individual Mobilities by Pascal Gielen, Professor of Cultural Sociology at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts (ARIA). Looking at the changes that the neoliberal work ethic has brought to contemporary artistic work, Gielen made a plea to reframe the status and position of the individual in the arts.

Pascal Gilen Residencies Reflected
Pascal Gielen.

Gielen introduced a professional model that joins together four spheres of artistic work which he says are often separated from each other. Bringing together the spheres of the domestic, civil, market and one’s peers, Gielen turned to residencies as a possible agent offering artists and other arts professionals a work environment that fosters consistent connections between these four areas of practice.

Gielen referred to the residencies as particular platforms for both disconnections and new connections. He described them as not only venues of art and isolated practices but as spaces for sharing knowledge, cultural and creative commons, food, time and economic resources with one’s peers – a vision that was discussed several times during the symposium.

Gielen encouraged artists and art workers to “re-frame the frame” by concentrating on thinking about what the word “common” could really mean in our field. He believes that by organizing artistic practice collectively, energy and resources could be saved towards sustaining their autonomy. Gielen concluded that the aim of residency programmes should be to help artists and art workers to organize themselves and thereby provide them with sustainable working conditions.


Frameworks for utopian openings

The following panel discussion between Laurel Ptak (Triangle, New York), Lex ter Braak (Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht), Nikos Doulos (artist, educator, Amsterdam / Athens) and Barbara Hernandez (SOMA, Mexico City), moderated by Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka (CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw) picked up on the ideas introduced by Gielen, sharing concrete experiences from the practices of these facilitators of different kinds of development programmes for artists.

”Physical presence is essential for us. We build a framework where knowledge can be produced, and think about how we distribute and articulate the produced knowledge. We try to create conditions in which we create ambassadors; not essentially to put pressure on artists to produce something, but to take ownership of what they have,” said Nikos Doulos, describing the work he contributes at Expodium in Utrecht.

Barbara Hernandez, Laurel Ptak, Lex ter Braak, Nikos Doulos and Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka.

As the panellists pondered what should be the current goal and focus of residency programmes, the discussion turned to a concern shared by many in the audience; the effects of cuts in cultural funding to international mobilities of art and its makers. Laurel Ptak described the situation in the current political climate of the US, referring to arts funding being dismantled by conservative governments:

”We don’t have the notion of art as a public good in the US. The public doesn’t feel a connection to the culture being produced there; only private funders see it as a usable thing. The financial situation of art is exhausting. Institutions are meant to uphold stability and continuity, yet the current moment is shaking this and I find it hard to navigate between these polarities.”

Despite the general sense of alarm concerning the political and economic climate of late 2016 – which was clearly tangible at the symposium –  the panellists attempted to shine a light into the future by searching for ways in which residency programmes could adjust and focus their practices in a reactive and relevant way.

Lex ter Braak brought forward a vision of residencies as utopian openings in a rather dystopian cultural climate. He insisted that the art world should do its best to keep residencies active and relevant, aiming to uphold opportunities for artists to work in different environments and connect with their peers internationally.

Laurel sees one answer to political exhaustion in thinking smaller. She described how at Triangle the organizers have decided to only host a few resident artists simultaneously in order to encourage the formation of a community, and to allow space for analytical reflection of the local context to emerge. This way, explained Laurel, the facilitators of the programme can also pay more attention to the needs of individual artists.

Doulos offered an equally positive viewpoint on how residency programmes could function effectively both with an outlook of criticality and in dialogue with their surroundings and the changing socio-cultural climate:

”We as initiators and institutions have to rethink how we maintain a dialogue that responds to what is happening in the world, as well as to other geographies, and try to expand the initiation of coming together.”


Other invited speakers at the symposium were Markus Konttinen (Academy of Fine Arts), Irmeli Kokko (Academy of Fine Arts), Nina Lübbren (Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge), Hanna Johansson (Academy of Fine Arts), Pascal Gielen (Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts), Adam Sutherland (Grizedale Art Center, Cumbria), Donna Lynas (Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge), Christine Tohmé (Ashkal Alwan, Beirut), Marita Muukkonen (Perpetuum Mobile), Antti Majava and Alma Heikkilä (Mustarinda), Bartaku (Frontiers in Retreat) and Taru Elfving (Frame).

The symposium was supported by Kone Foundation. It will be followed up by a publication drawing together emerging critical discourse on residencies during 2017.


Text and images: Hanna Ohtonen.