A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED ON THE ALLIANCE OF ARTISTS COMMUNITIES BLOG ON APRIL 4, 2019:
In the fall of 2018, the Rauschenberg Residency (RR) in Captiva, Florida, a program of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RRF), hosted a residency for practicing artists of all disciplines who also work at member organizations of the Alliance of Artists Communities (AAC). Here, we share our program model and reflections.
The seed for the idea of hosting a residency for arts administrators was planted over years of discussion at AAC conferences and among colleagues. Many of those who work in the field are practicing artists – that is often their entry point into artists’ communities and the source of their passion and creativity in their work. However, burnout is a frequently discussed issue, and one that was addressed in the 2017 AAC conference session Wanderlust & Retaining Staff, which became the impetus for running a residency for arts administrators at RR.
We modeled the arts administrator residency on our typical residency program, with the major difference of shortening it to two weeks to accommodate participants’ full-time jobs. (Residents noted this was the longest they felt they could be away.) Ten arts administrators attended the residency for the same two-week period; hosting a “full house” of arts administrators deepened the impact.
“Attending with other administrators gave me permission to embrace my freest creative self while being unapologetic about my professional passion for helping others. It was relaxing, informative, and as good as any conference I have ever attended. The camaraderie of the residency also allowed for a kind of uncensored sharing and safe space for us to examine, debate, and challenge each other on an endless list of topics.” – Howie Sneider, Visual Artist & Executive Director at The Steel Yard
The RR arts administrator residency was open to applications via Submittable and participants were selected by a panel. Applicants were full-time employees (in any position/department/level) of an AAC member organization for at least one year. Applicants self-identified gender, race/ethnicity, and disability, in order to support the selection of a culturally diverse and pluralistic group of resident artists. They answered prompts for: 1) A narrative bio, 2) how a residency would benefit them, and 3) what they might work on while in residence. Lastly, they needed to include a letter from their immediate supervisor that stated: 1) Support for their application, 2) the reason/s they would be a good candidate, and 3) the plan to replace them/their workload while they are gone.
It is important to note that the application did not include a request for a resume or portfolio, as residents were not selected based on perceived artistic or professional merit. Selection panelists were instructed to focus on the artists’ need for the time and space provided by a residency, a well-developed sense of one’s practice and plans for their time (including being open to experimentation), and representing a diversity of disciplines, backgrounds, career levels, geographic locations, positions within their organizations, and their organization’s structure/budget/size/age. Including a diversity of positions/departments and organizational structures greatly enriched the naturally occurring professional dialogue among the residents while at RR.
“I really loved how this residency brought in artists and administrators from different levels…and having a discussion about, ‘Oh, well your budget’s this size, so is ours,’ and, ‘How is your organizational structure broken down differently and what can we learn from that?’…When you relax and open yourself up to that, I think you can take in more in a real honest way.” – Gretchen Schermerhorn, Visual Artist & Artistic Director at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center
Another important component of the application to note was the letter from the supervisor. Its intent was part recommendation letter, part acknowledgement that the residency is intended as dedicated time for their employee’s creative practice – not as off-site working hours. Residents later noted that the requirement of the letter also served as a “call to action” to their supervisors; in other words, “Will you support me in this way?” Of the 10 participating residents, eight did not use any personal time off and two split 50 percent working hours, 50 percent paid time off. The supervisors acknowledged that the residency was a professional development opportunity due to the exchange that would occur.
“Administrators need research/reflection time to gain perspective on their own organizations, something that during the daily grind feels impossible… As much as I was focused on making work again, it was also amazing seeing [the residency] process from beginning to end… It dawned on me this experience is high impact – affecting not only ourselves but our staff and participants. It was also amazing to be reminded what it's like to be a resident – how simultaneously grateful, vulnerable and raw it feels to be away from routine and familiarity.” – Emily Ensminger, Interdisciplinary Artist Administrator & Creative Director at Elsewhere
“The concept of sabbaticals need to extend beyond professors in higher education to include a broader spectrum of art professionals. More personal/professional opportunities that support the hybrid nature of today’s art professionals.” – Shervone Neckles, Interdisciplinary Artist & Artist Programs Manager, Professional Development at Joan Mitchell Foundation
The outcome of the arts administrator residency exceeded our expectations. The above-average enthusiasm of the residents – individuals who work in the field of artists’ communities but rarely or never have the opportunity to experience them as artists – was palpable. A supplemental outcome was the impact on our own staff. This residency allowed and encouraged everyone, including part-time staff and our intern, to engage and participate in mutual learning opportunities and networking in the artists’ community field. Staff members could provide insight into the processes of their jobs on a level most resident artists don’t need; this was both beneficial to the residents and served to underline the expertise of each staff member.
Throughout the residency, the residents joyfully engaged in the rare opportunity for uninterrupted studio time. During meals and free time, conversations naturally turned to their common professional practices – discussing budgets, fundraising and organizational strategies, fresh programming ideas, community outreach, helpful resources, problem solving, organizational culture, equity/inclusion, accessibility, and avoiding staff burnout.
“We had a lot of casual conversations about shop talk when playing games or by the pool…there was the attempt to formalize it, but somehow that never got off the ground – I think, probably, because it was happening sporadically throughout the two weeks.” – Nick DeFord, Visual Artist & Program Director at Arrowmont School of Art and Crafts
Experiencing a residency from the perspective of an artist-in-residence allowed the participants to view their own programs in a new light and shift artist interaction and communication accordingly. The atmosphere of the residency – arguably more casual and relationship-building than a conference or other professional gathering – allowed residents to let their guards down and speak with candidness about issues. Post-residency, each person has nine new close colleagues to call upon for advice or partnerships, in addition to the staff at RR. Each resident expressed concrete as well as more subtle take-aways from the experience:
“Some of the changes we’ll implement will be as simple as…good signage, good historical info, and other changes are shifts in organizational culture like introducing more hospitality and community-building learning activities and information…and taking more time to talk to artists, help artists, and deepen community bonds.” – Ellen Lake, Visual Artist & Development Director at Kala Art Institute
“I came away with new ideas about organizational structures, job descriptions, motivations, and community care. We compared our experience to that of our residents’ and gained empathy, ambitions, and perspective.” – Howie Sneider, Visual Artist & Executive Director at The Steel Yard
At RR, hosting the arts administrator residency highlighted the value of peer learning, and we have since arranged site visits with other residencies as a way to continue building community. These moments of connection can amplify outwards into much greater learning, growth, and partnerships.