The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of arts careers and grants and stuff, and artists’ residencies. Yes, it’s that time of year again: the alert from the Bundanon Trust fell into my inbox earlier in the week and in between caring for a sick daughter (just a nasty cold) and packing in the hours in the studio (‘cos it’s far too wet to be thinking of gardening) I’ve been ruminating about the whole artists’ career thing.

Do they tell you all about the arts career ladder at art school? I didn’t go, so I have no idea. I guess even if not, you probably get an idea what happens by interacting with your contemporaries, watching your predecessors and reading the arts press. I’ve done much the same thing: paid attention to names at exhibitions and in various art magazines, looked at prize winners and generally listened out. I deduce that there comes a point when you are expected to start applying for and getting grants and residencies in order to climb up to the next rung, and I think I’m close to that stage. I’ve exhibited regularly in several countries and taken part in various collaborative projects. I’ve sent my work here, there and everywhere and apparently some people now know who I am when they see my name. I don’t have gallery representation – to be honest I’ve not even tried, and don’t know if it is what I would want – but I really really would like to do a residency.

Why a residency? In a domestic sense it’s a way of escaping normal life for a while and focusing completely on your art. That sounds a bit like I’ve had enough of doing the washing up and would like a holiday paid for by someone else, but dreams of lottery winnings aside, it’s not quite like that. Making art is like being part of a constant tug-o-war, constructing a meaningful space around the interior life that feeds your art while juggling the demands of everyday. It is an essentially selfish activity, and I feel constantly compromised. The muse rarely decides to communicate with me while I’m settled in the studio… instead it sneaks up on me at all hours of the day and night, invading my relationships, demanding attention while I’m trying to attend to other people, delivering great must-do-right-now ideas when I’m at work on other things. I am hardly unique in this, it must be the plaint of artists through history. But the lure of a residency for me is partly the allure of dedicated time in which to be completely selfish about making art.

It is also the allure of being part of something bigger: residencies give a glimpse of other lives and new possibilities, they connect you with new people who – perhaps – understand what you’re talking about. There is a chance to get involved with collaborative work or artistic exchange, and the chance to make friends and talk. It seems to me that residencies have the power to accelerate your progress by presenting challenges and opportunities at a point when you are separated from the ‘no’-ness of normal life.

If I apply for the Bundanon Trust residencies again this year (note the “if”) it will be my third or fourth attempt. My poor atrophied brain cells can’t remember. Is it worth the attempt? I think the statistic of “1 in 4” applications accepted is bandied around somewhere on the blurb or the website, but I wonder whether in reality the odds are stacked. I’d always been quite optimistic about applying… until I read an article by Deborah Ely, the CEO of the Bundanon Trust, in the March 2011 NAVA Quarterly magazine in which she said that “the residency program is premised upon the seriousness and calibre of selected artists” and “the majority of artists have visible careers nationally and/or internationally”. Oh dear. Possibly a big profile in Coffs Harbour isn’t visible or serious enough…

Another residency opportunity popped into my inbox last night, from Asialink which is administered by the University of Melbourne. About 40 Australian artists are placed in various Asian countries each year, and the programme sounds fabulous. I’ve talked to dearest husband about the possibility – wildly unlikely! – that I might be off to Malaysia for a couple of months next year and he was very cool about the whole thing: it’s probably manageable as long as he and darling daughter could come over for a week or so in the middle, which is fine by me. But again, how likely is it? Answer: not very.

From a funder’s point of view it obviously makes sense to poke money at young, energetic, up-and-coming artists who are all into cutting edge/inter-disciplinary/contemporary art making. They’ve got years ahead of them in which to make their mark on the art world and for their resume to trumpet the inspired confidence of an early grant-maker or residency organisation. I find myself rather glumly surveying my own prospects: gallery representation? Not likely in the near future, I think. Big competition win? It would help if I’d entered a big competition recently! Long career ahead of me? Yes, it’s possible; artists don’t exactly have a retirement date in mind since making art is as much about who they are as how they work. Residency? Well it would be nice to think so. I remember a crucial meeting with a large philanthropic organisation when I was Chair of Spike Island Printmakers in Bristol a few years ago. We had applied for a large grant to enable us to appoint a Director who could take us off into the bright blue yonder, but we were head-to-head with several other worthy applicants when the CEO came to visit me for a chat. Why, she asked me, should they give the money to us? And my reply was that everything starts with one person taking a leap of faith and investing in us: without that element of risk taking we would never have a chance to prove ourselves worthy. Once one trust or person made that leap, others would follow (if we managed the money sensibly) and we would shine. So she did. Fingers crossed that at some point the same will happen for me.

10 thoughts on “Residencies

  1. In a couple of days time I have to head south for my annual trek to uni…. and as usual I'm NOT looking forward to leaving my creek home (even though it's just a couple of days) ….. sigh…

    I have been mulling over in my head (as I'm preparing my arty stuff and head for the ordeal) many of the things you've been mulling over … and have been trying to gather the words to write my thoughts…. (sigh)

    as I read through your post, I found my head nodding in empathy (yep I've got that whole gallery representation waivering, art prize befuddlement, thing going on) EXCEPT on the issue of residencies – unlike you, there are few things that fill my heart with greater dread than the prospect of being separated from my creek home for too long (anything over a week is considered an eternity…). I think its safe to say – I'm never going to be a residency arty girl!

    my preferences/ prejudices aside – I wish you much luck in your residency quests!

  2. OK – a different view from your totally unartistic sister!!

    It strikes me that it's extremely hard to get national / international recognition as an artist- harder still to make any money even if you have that recognition on a wider stage (until you die – then I'm told the price of your work could rocket!). Dragging yourself over all those hurdles (and through all that paperwork) on the very slim chance of being accepted sounds soul destroying – probably at least one of the reasons why you're in your present funk.

    Why not try to get back to enjoying creating, bin those forms and settle for being a big fish in a small pond? Yes – that sounds unadventurous and timid, but given the very remote chances of making it big, why not at least be happy? (Unless of course your art depends on angst – in which case, go on, depress yourself!)

  3. Thank Sara for this chat – it felt like you were having a chat over a cuppa and like Ronnie I was nodding here and there. I agree wholeheartedly with the residency option – they sound so delicious and enticing for all the reasons you say. Also very competitive which kind of takes the edge of getting involved. I am constantly re-calibrating what it's all about for me – fame? fortune? fun? Satisfaction? and the answers constantly change. I like your sister's approach as well! I guess it's part of the journey and the ongoing discovery…Go well!

  4. My sister's “fish” metaphor is apt: I'd rather swim with the sharks than be confined to a small aquarium. I recognise that I'm not going to be big enough to BE a shark myself, but I'd like to find my own patch of reef and swim there in the middle of the vastness, not sit on one side of a piece glass looking in.

  5. Hi Sara, A link from Ronnie's blog led me here and your interesting post on residencies and art practice.
    From my experiences I think the odds for success with a residency or grant application are around 1 in 10. With this in mind I expect to submit 10 proposals before one goes ahead, and if it happens sooner then it's a bonus. It is very competitive, so many good artists making great work.

    An artist who was a few years ahead of me in her practice told me once that if it's something you really want to do, then keep applying and your turn will come. Persistence as always.

    Best wishes, Nicola.

  6. Hi Sara,
    (have arrived here via the link on Ronnie's blog)
    I too have come to the conclusion that a residency would be great, as it would provide time away from family to focus on my practice (as I found out in just 2 weeks away with only one child – there was space in my head for creative thought). Mine is a practice that has definitely suffered through putting family first…no steady momentum, no regular exhibiting – all frowned upon by those granting residencies. But, just go for it – keep applying. You have to be in it to win it, as they say.

  7. So why not go for gallery representation and see how it works for you, then if you don't get your residency, you'll be in a better position on paper for the next time round?

  8. I can confirm that when I was at RMIT we were told by some serious international grant winners that the accepted rate of success is 1 in 10.
    I think the crucial thing is “fit”. “Does what you are applying for make absolute sense?” I ask myself. If it is just something I've “always wanted to do”, but nobody would know that by looking at my past work, then it is pretty difficult to argue convincingly.

    The times I've been successful, it has all been a perfect fit, and this has just been the final piece in the jig-saw.

  9. I'm coming in late on this (sorry!)… one thing I can say with authority is that things will get MUCH easier when your child is less dependent, although living in the country means that you'll be ferrying her around longer than I do with my son, who can ride his bike to friend's houses, or catch a bus or train etc.

    If your hubby & child can cope without you, definitely go for lots of residency applications, and there's so many more than Bundanon… you should try Megalo, which has a fabulous scheme for printmakers, and are very supportive of artist's books.

    Forget about the 'career path' bullshit. Keep making, work at your own pace, and push yourself when you can. The best advice I ever got was being taken down to the art school library by one of my teachers, and she opened a number of books about famous artists — the big ones — and we looked at their biographies listed in the backs of the books. She pointed out that between big shows and big events in their lives, there were lots of time gaps, sometimes of years.

    'See those spaces?' she said, 'they're called LIFE.'

    And she's right. Enjoy your life, and make your work.

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