Artist Residencies:

History and Evolution

Artist residencies are research-and-development labs for the arts, providing artists with time, space, resources and support for the exploration of new ideas and creation of new work. One of the first and most notable examples of artists working more directly with governments started in 1965, when the Artist Placement Group in London negotiated roughly twenty placements of artists in industry and government. Artists in residence in government has more of a legacy in the European and Canadian context where artists have been supported through regional governments and there is an assumption of art as a social good.

Within the last few decades, a new wave of "embedded" artist residencies have emerged from Boston to Seattle, initiated by local arts agencies, governments and community organizations to engage creative thinkers in helping address pressing local challenges in new ways. As the Pittsburgh Arts Council explains, "an artist residency in the public realm is an opportunity for a community, organization, government office, or other entity to collaborate with an artist within the public sphere" (Pittsburgh Arts Council, 2014). These residencies introduce not just art and cultural production into the context of planning, but also new methods creative problem-solving and community engagement.

One pioneer of this model of residencies embedded in government is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has served as the unofficial artist in residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation since 1976. Through the proposal of an unpaid residency, Ukeles embedded herself into the department to help both citizens and the city see more clearly the everyday contributions of these integral laborers. The artist opened up a new era in which artists work collaboratively with governments and other organizations to think differently, highlighting the human element of planning. Since Ukeles' work in New York, local governments, civic departments, and organizations around the world have adopted similar programs, inviting artists to delve deeply into the issues facing a municipality or department, the community it serves, and/or a physical site. Many of the artists involved in embedded residencies function as social practitioners, both artists and seasoned community organizers and cultural producers who are skilled in collaboration. This allows them to interface between communities and organizations, across departments, and incite engagement in creative ways. Effective artist-in-residence programs in government embed artists into civic processes.

Arts Residencies in Government

Civic artist residencies are embedded within local government or civic agencies to amplify planning outcomes, explore new methods for integrating communities into planning processes, and to creatively tap into the rich human experience of living in place. These residencies can be designed to embed artists more generally into agencies, or into a specific department.

Artists serving in these roles are often provided with opportunities for professional development, access to materials, opportunities to acquire new content knowledge, undertake research, execute art projects that are permanent or temporary in nature, and gain new patronage and reach new audiences. In turn, the residency provides governments with in-house creative expertise, with the artist-in-residence (AIR) bringing a fresh approach to government culture and process in many ways, such as: planning process, creative prototyping of public realm changes, community engagement, communications, and community development by creating engaging opportunities and works that bring together people from different sectors and walks of life.

Residency Structure

Residency programs vary in structure; some assign artists to specific tasks, while others remain open-ended and evolve during the artist's tenure based on agency needs, community interest and the artist's own creative direction. The lengths of these residencies may range from just a few weeks to multiple years. While some artists become salaried staff members, others function as contractors operating on a project-basis. The most common artist-in-residence structures include:

  • Project-based: These particular residencies are structured around a central project or issue which the artist addresses during the tenure of their residency. In 2015, Seattle Public Utilities selected artist Vaughn Bell as their Green Infrastructure and Waterways artist-in-residence to work closely with SPU staff to develop an art master plan to guide future public art commissions to be integrated into SPU Drainage and Wastewater projects. In Minneapolis, performance artists Sh Cage and E.G. Bailey collaborated with the City of Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED)'s Long Range Planning Division to develop a creative asset mapping project, part of Intermedia Arts' Creative CityMaking artist in residence program. Residents in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood populated a map with what they valued about their community, and the artists used the map to facilitate a series of conversations within the neighborhood[1]. The artist team has developed an artful map template for the community to populate what is valued by the people who live, work, study, and play in the community. The team is using the map in tandem with a series of deep community conversations around what matters to the people of Cedar Riverside about their neighborhood.
  • Department-based: Other residency structures focus on embedding artists into individual departments. The City of Boston's Artist-in-Residence, Creative CityMaking Minneapolis, the City of Austin Artist-in-Residence Program housed in the Watershed Protection Department, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's Creative Catalyst Artist in Residence and the Public Artists in Residence organized by The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs all pair artists with specific municipal departments and the duration of their residency focuses on working closely with the staff and the issues of the department. New York City, for example, has hosted artists in residence within the Department of Veterans Services, the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Department of Design and Construction among departments. Over the course of at least one year, these artists in residence receive a fee, project budget, desk space within the host agency, and additional resources provided by both the Department of Cultural Affairs and the hosting department.
  • Agency-wide: At the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Metropolitan Boston, Carolyn Lewenberg serves as the agency's first artist-in-residence and works across many divisions within the agency, is developing educational opportunities and training initiatives for both planners and artists, and is executing public art projects that advance the goals of planning projects currently underway. As artist-in-residence, she serves on MAPC staff for a salaried 18-month term and has dedicated desk space. Similarly, the artists of City Artist St. Paul work across city agencies and ensure that art is integral to every civic discipline.

Embedded artist residencies allow for artists to work collaboratively with the hosting organization to develop projects and arrive at outcomes together. Outcomes may include tackling old processes and ongoing challenges in new ways, increased community buy-in/support, deeper engagement, augmenting planning goals, and giving voice to underrepresented constituents. Most of these programs express a central interest in exploring new ways for deeper exchange between the community and the agency. Below are examples of some of the outcomes emerging from AIR programs as identified in our scan of government-based residencies.

  • Bridging sectors: Facilitating cross-sectoral exchange amongst arts professionals and planners thereby creating an expanded ecosystem of collaborators around government-led work
  • Government Culture: Generating new systems or processes within the agency that infuse fresh thinking and creativity.
    Planning Process: Stimulating more diverse community participation in planning and design processes along with an element of fun.
  • Community Engagement: Nurturing deeper community and stakeholder engagement; creating new pipelines of connection between citizens and departments, agencies/municipalities, or artists; and the engagement of students.
  • Communications: Creative new methods for the community to access to new information and to access municipal departments; creation of new educational materials that translate government process or projects to new audiences.
  • Prototyping: Create an artistic prototype of interventions or solutions that might be replicable in other cities and towns.