essay

Setting the Table

By Lisa Hoffman

As the broader arts field increasingly shifts from traditional forms of studio production to social practices, residencies face a special set of challenges in responding to this trend. Helicon Collaborative’s latest report to the field, Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Art, reveals some of these challenges by opening a discussion about the different ways that artistic practices respond to contemporary issues and how to support artists in a variety of contexts. Its authors, Alexis Frasz and Holly Sidford, posit that the artist is at the center of our work of addressing human lives and inspire us to think about the existing structures and systems that limit the efficacy of those efforts. And while making art that is socially engaged (and the discourse around it) may change from season to season, some characteristics persist over time, including how best to support this work and how best to engage communities.

I CAN’T BREATHE WORKSHOP, Public-participatory workshop and performance led by McColl Center alumni artist-in- residence Shaun Leonardo, 2017. Courtesy McColl Center for Art +Innovation

To start, socially engaged artists need “time away from it all” as much as studio artists do. They are interrogating issues ranging from urbanization and ruralism, to global economics and environmental concerns, to racism, classism, and sexism. Residencies as they are currently structured can provide the right settings for stepping away to research, reflect on, (or recover from) such weighty subjects. They are also a space for artists to focus intensively on honing their craft. To that end, socially engaged artists also need residencies that offer the opportunity to deepen their skills of community engagement and social action.

How then should artist residency programs shift their goals? Operationalize their missions? Staff their organizations? How do residency programs generate funding to support this growing set of social practices and concerns? How might we prepare more residencies to sustain socially engaged artistic practice? A clear vision and funding model are needed.

One thing we do know is that if residency programs hope to truly support the diversity of socially engaged artists and the issues they address, we would benefit from employees, boards and program partners who mirror the communities and concerns we aim to serve. We must build our teams and grow our networks across race, ethnicity and class. As Keryl McCord might ask—how are we creating safe environments that truly support people who are Black, White, Latino, Asian, African, Arabic, Indigenous, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, pagans, non-believers, queer, straight, transgender and differently-abled? Do our residency programs reflect what we espouse?

It also matters how our programs impact our surrounding community. Relationships with community members must be nurtured and true. We cannot offer visiting artists a chance to join our community if we have denied our neighbors a seat at our table. It seems only natural for artist residencies to foster a climate of collaboration and develop relationships with the people that live and contribute to the complex cultural vitality of the places where they exist, in order to create the conditions for socially engaged artists to thrive. In the words of Nicole Caruth, “An art organization invested in community engagement has to do the hard work of holding up a mirror to itself and asking: Do I know my neighbors? Do I love my neighbors? Do I want to be a better neighbor? Neighborliness is the foundation of our work, not its outcome.”

Artist residency programs have built their reputations and established their value by providing time and space to artists at the most fragile or necessary moments of their practice. My greatest aspiration for artist residencies is to perform that function while also serving as centers of equity, with a standard of inclusion at every level that supports all citizens. But to get there we must constantly consider how we build and maintain infrastructure within our own establishments. Mapping the Landscape reminds us that “most nonprofit cultural organizations are structured financially and organizationally to develop and present work in galleries or on stages for paying audiences, not engage artists over long periods of time to work for social change on behalf of and with communities.” Residencies that were founded on earnest intentions but not big budgets may not have the capital or the resources to develop the depth of expertise needed for community-based work. But in the absence of such investment, they risk embarking on projects that leave both staff members and artists wondering if they have done more harm than good. I challenge those of us leading residency programs to not only consider the potential financial inputs to support this work but to also audit our relational balance sheets.

These actions are vital for inquiry at the intersection of art and social issues, for building sustainable communities, and for ensuring that we do not diminish what is precious for future generations.


About the Author

Lisa Hoffman is a biologist turned arts administrator who is fascinated with the environment as an integrating context to address social issues. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities, the international network of artist residency programs. Learn more @artistresidency.