Redefining the Residency | Alliance of Artists Communities Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon

Photo by Erica Thomas, The ARTIST IN RESIDENCE sign is lit whenever someone at the house is doing creative work.


The first standout theme from the AAC conference that I will discuss is Redefining the Residency, a topic that can be applied to any arts discipline and one that I, too, have worked to redefine in the past. The session, “Self-Declared: Practice and Politics of DIY Artist Residencies in Portland,” presented five local artists discussing the ways in which they have reconstituted the parameters of an “artist residency” for reasons political, pragmatic, and artistic. Such alternative opportunities are especially important for artists who work in community engagement, experimentally, and/or with no intent of measurable outcome, for whom traditional residencies are not often a fit for their practice.

Erica Thomas defined her declaration to become an artist-in-residence in her own life, resisting existing patriarchal structures and including in her practice her roles as wife, mother, and coworker, merging life with art. (Erica lists her marriage on her CV as an ongoing collaboration, 2012 to present.) Her audience for her work fluctuates from one to hundreds or thousands, but her practice is constant and exists in every aspect of her life. Erica pointed out that while her practice works in opposition to what typically defines institutional support – and that though, by definition, she must remain autonomous – her practice would benefit from funding, performance space, and conversations with a collaborative audience.

Taryn Tomasello shared her experience creating a renegade residency on Ross Island, an island in the Willamette River (which bisects the city of Portland) that is part city-owned forested riparian zone, part quarry, part toxic land fill. Taryn, with her husband and children in tow, camped without permission on the island and completed ephemeral projects she documented in photos and video. She investigated ideas of displacement and ownership of land, while allowing her work to exist in communication with her ongoing residency in motherhood. Taryn brought in other artists to join her on the island, and a catalog and several exhibitions have resulted from the residency.

Emily Fitzgerald began a self-declared residency at the Hollywood Senior Center in Portland after frequent visits with her grandmother revealed to her a community in need. Her practice is based around artistic research and storytelling, working with the residents to use photography and writing to learn about each other. The collective developed a printed book, performed readings in various locations, and created an installation that made the Center’s public space more humanizing. In another project, Emily grouped high school students with the Center’s residents and had them write about the role of dependency in their lives and ask each other questions about their respective generation and life experience. This led to individually responsive work in the form of writing and drawing. Often, these social energies are not considered “art” in the context of the institution. The self-declared residency allows for them to be.

Katy Asher and Ariana Jacob put a name to their project – the Resident Residency – in which they gathered fellow artists to create work in their own communities. Often, residencies bring in artists to an unfamiliar neighborhood to have impact there, but Katy and Ariana envisioned a residency where artists create impact in their own neighborhoods without having to leave home. Each artist developed a “residency” within his or her respective Neighborhood Association, groups already doing social practice-esque projects throughout Portland. The Neighborhood Associations provided a platform and a source of funding for projects such as community gatherings and project catalogs. However, the artists found it challenging to create subversive work inside the parameters of the Association’s vision, and struggled to reach underserved or peripheral members of each neighborhood.

All of the speakers expressed frustration with finding funding for their projects after they had occurred, rather than before, when the funder holds stake in the outcome. They are hoping to spread the word about the value of self-declared residencies to their communities, funders, and art institutions. (A representative from United Arts Funds shared that her organization is one to reach out to for such funding.)

For me, what resonated is that you do not have to wait for an institution such as a university, gallery, museum, funder, etc. to grant you lines on your resumé or venues for your work to develop or be shown. You can create your own opportunities and they are just as valid, and just as resumé-worthy. Too often we wait for acceptance or permission to do what can be done on our own.

My charge is this: Think, declare, and do for yourself as an artist, and soon the institutions will catch up with you.


I would be remiss not to plug my December 2015 Crafthaus article “DIY Residency: In Residence at Home”.

Also check out the other conference topics I covered: Community Engagement & Social Practice and Diversity Versus Inclusion.

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Replies to This Discussion

Most interesting, thank you Jessica! I am very glad you brought your earlier blog post back into this one here, it's a good fit and reminded me to take Wednesdays off again, I started to slack off on that one. Paid work is hard to turn down, but I do need the downtime. #BillyBushMadeMeDoIt - I guess. Anyway, thanks again for posting about these self-declared residencies. Creative problem solution at its best. Will there be more coming about the conference? Sounds like one I should attend in the future.

That hashtag is hilarious!! Yes, it was so inspiring to hear these women taking it upon themselves to make things happen in their careers and communities. Especially those raising children who refused to draw a hard line between Artist and Mother. Absolutely loved it! I will be doing two more "installments" about the conference, coming soon - Community Engagement & Social Practice and Diversity Versus Inclusion.

I have a big problem with the so-called "Artist-in-Residencies" sponsored in established organizations. (To be perfectly clear, I mean the ones where they give you a space, and they expect the artist to live there for 3-6 months, or 1 year, etc. )  The whole idea drives me nuts. and offends the feminist artist in  me to the very core. 

Sure there can be something for everyone,but the usual "Artist-in-Residency"  assumes that you can pick up your life and move to another location for an extended periods of time. When your life is complex with children, husband, community volunteer work and perhaps even another job(s), the pick up and move someplace else for an "Artists in Residency" is out of the question.)  This is only for people without the attachments and responsibilities that life brings.  (Sometimes, these Artist in Residencies work for teachers that have a summer "off." Another offense hierarchical assumption.)

For a person with two children, house, garden, two jobs for income (and so much more), the concept of an established "Artist In Residency" is a misogynist fantasy. It offends me to the very core.

 The ideas presented in this post are interesting in that they don't wait for an organization to offer you an empty room, and specific window in time that mayor may not fit into your life.

My fantasy "Artist-in-residency" includes a secretary that can compose and write perfect in English, a cleaning lady, gardener, and handyman. 

*Disclaimer: I did not see this program reported on by  Jessica Todd, but would like to applaud these people's efforts to define their own Artist in Residency. 

Love Harriete's comment. And to riff off of her "My fantasy "Artist-in-residency" includes a secretary that can compose and write perfect in English, a cleaning lady, gardener, and handyman," I want to add: plus a cook capable of French cuisine, a babysitter ... and a cabana boy serving me drinks with little pink umbrellas in them all day long.

OK, so I am fantasizing. LOL.

But back to the point Jessica is making: Good childcare is hard to come by and probably one of the biggest hurdles for female artists to climb over. I cannot count the many instances artists told me stories of how they could not take on a residency they were qualified for because of a lack of childcare at home or at the residency. Why do men not have such issues, or do they? One artist was told there was no room for kids at the craft center and that it was also an insurance problem. Geez. If you can insure gas tanks that may explode at any moment, you can insure child care.

Of course, male artists grapple with the exact same issues. The real issue is institutional support systems that are out of step with the real-world needs of the constituencies they purport to serve.

A popular expression of late is, "when existing systems fail people, they create their own." What is being described here is a living example of this expression.  

Artists have come under intense economic pressure over the last two decades. Traditional channels of career and financial advancement have become increasingly ineffective. Everyone, artists, and institutions are trying to find a new path.  

What is being expressed here is very exciting for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it is a nascent demonstration of artistic self-determinism. The operative word here being "demonstration" - backing up the words with actions. 

Just as important, these actions serve as guideposts for our institutions to determine how best to align themselves with services and support.  

Lastly, as a male artist who is smack in the middle of all of this, if that cabana boy job is still open....

Great response! 

Yes, Harriete and Brigitte, I completely agree. The residency I work at - the Rauschenberg Residency - has run three family residencies where spouses and children can attend and we provide childcare Monday-Friday 9am-5pm (we are fortunate in that we have a larger budget than most residencies out there). However, you are right that that still leaves homes, gardens, jobs, pets, livestock, and other obligations in the lurch. Interestingly enough, in response to your question about men, Brigitte, we were unable to fill next year's family residency because the men, (and I believe a couple women), who were invited with children preferred to come without them. A luxury, for sure. I think these are people with generous and available grandparents on hand, and ours is only 5 weeks.

Harriete, I'm not sure if you were serious about your call for an artist residency where the services come to you to free up your time to work, but really, that's quite an idea. By the time an artist residency pays travel, cost of housing people, feeding people, on-site staff, they would actually save money sending assistance to someone's house. Imagine writing up a grant for an at-home residency geared toward artists who can't leave their homes, where the residency provides some sort of food service, cleaning service, childcare, studio assistance, etc. for a set amount of time. Now that could really go somewhere... Talk about upsetting the patriarchy!

I'm completely serious, by the way. We could really pursue this...

Super cool!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I am on board.

I could write a post about the issues we are discussing here and give this good visibility.

I really think it's worth further investigation as well as input from a greater audience!

I am so very much on board with this concept. I have considered applying for residencies, but the fact that I need my own tools and equipment to pursue my intended projects eliminates most residency studio spaces. Plus disrupting family life altogether. 

Seems like many residencies at craft centers, although offering space and time, also want to be 'adorned' by the artists who participate. II would like to see 'residencies' defined  differently to include the possibility of an artist being given the time and support to pursue my project(s) in one's own studio. The discussion on this certainly offers a way to  structure that.


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