Reports from the Front: Alliance of Artists Communitites

Caitlin Strokosch

The Alliance of Artists Communities is the service organization for artists’ colonies, communities, and residency programs — places for artists of any discipline to develop new work — with more than five hundred sites in the United States and over one thousand worldwide. While the earliest programs were developed a century ago as isolated retreats, the field has grown to include dozens of models — from urban residencies for local artists, to community-engaged art spaces in small towns, to those providing residencies alongside educational, environmental, or presenting programs. And yet each of these places, these research-and-development labs for the arts, shares a core value: a focus on creative process rather than product or presentation.

This value is also at the root of the field’s greatest challenge, namely, the intangibility of a residency when the outcome is measured in personal transformation, experimentation, and creative development rather than books, paintings, dances, or songs, or in audience and public support. How well an artist residency has done its job in supporting artists is not easily measured — there is no economic impact index for the return on investment when you trust an artist to explore new ground. And with competition for funding often hinging on assessment, the field is left to ask: How do we evaluate success when we don’t dictate outcome?

In the past two years, artists’ residency programs have experienced much of the same dwindling support as other arts organizations: 58 percent have laid off staff or reduced salaries, hours, or benefits; 61 percent have cut professional development; 46 percent and 58 percent have experienced a significant decrease in foundation support and individual giving, respectively. Those with endowments have seen an average 29 percent decrease in value. And while overall budgets have been cut by more than 15 percent, demand for services has increased, with some residency programs receiving more than double the number of applications as more artists are out of work and seeking opportunities at residencies.

Three major trends have emerged from this time. The first is a renewed commitment to putting artists first. While organizations are struggling with maintaining facilities and staff, the question the Alliance is most often asked is, “How can we continue our support of artists, increase stipends or subsidize fees, and offer more in this time of need?” With so many other sources of funding for individual artists greatly diminished, this commitment is more critical than ever.

The second development is logistical: many artists’ residency programs are investing more in ecosystems than institutionalization. In a facilities-dependent field, for example, many are seeking partnerships with other arts spaces rather than building new studios or housing. Others are cross-programming with galleries and presenters, with schools and community groups, and developing partnerships that deepen impact without increasing infrastructure. Organizations are embracing a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships ethic and imagining sustainability measured not by an organization’s independence or the value of one’s endowment but rather by an interdependence — an ecology of action and support.

The third emerging trend is the development of new tools that articulate the impact of artists’ residencies. The arts advocacy landscape is flooded with economic impact studies and reports on the creative economy, but these do not tell the whole story and are woefully inadequate for small organizations, those that support an underserved community, or programs that focus on deep impact with a small number of individuals. Artists’ residencies need better data to support their cause, but statistics and anecdotes must go hand in hand, and we can’t have enough of either to make a compelling case for supporting artists in their creative work. Rather than contort the field into a series of numbers to try to show the impact of artists’ residencies on society, the Alliance is working toward a field that is better able to articulate its value (qualitatively and quantitatively), an arts sector that is willing to challenge the notion that we can and should measure everything in numerical and financial terms, and a society that is willing to invest in the intangibility of process by sharing our trust that providing artists with an environment in which creativity thrives will generate new work and ideas that will enrich our world.

There is great abundance in this field — a generosity of support and cooperation, a wealth of wisdom and devotion, of camaraderie and passion. And, while we strive to raise more money and struggle to do more with less, these are the resources that sustain artists’ residency programs and will continue to shape the field in the years to come.