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engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists

Editor's Introduction

Barbara Dougan

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Editor's Introduction
engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists
Pages 6-16
Editor: Barbara Dougan
Spring 2016
Published by engage, London
http://www.engage.org/article.aspx?id=182

This issue of the engage Journal investigates the relationships between organisations, audiences and the artists who are invited to develop their practice and/or make new work in a specific context and for a defined purpose. The projects embrace placements, residencies, community initiatives, collaborative projects, regeneration and commissions. Consequently these projects demand shared objectives, negotiation, empathy and sensitivity to the ideas and ambitions of all involved. The public-facing nature of most projects poses challenges, including the different objectives of arts and non-arts partners. Increasingly, artists are invited to work for an organisation with a participation agenda, with the requirement for the artist to work with or collaborate with audiences.

Whilst the concept of residencies might feel contemporary the TransArtists website traces it back to around 1900 when, in the USA and UK, art benefactors or patrons offered artists guest studios to concentrate on their work. Over the decades the aims and philosophies have changed and now there is a strong interest in research-driven residencies, with the idea that ‘artists in residence’, through peer to peer exchange and focusing on mutual issues to host and artist, ‘may offer new spaces and models for the development of knowledge and understanding, not only in the arts, but in society as well’. 1

Commissioning artists – for what is broadly termed ‘public art’ – has similar challenges to residencies, for commissioners and artists - and there is significant overlap. The spectrum of public art ‘encompasses art commissioned as a response to the notion of place, art commissioned as part of the designed environment and process-based artistic practice that does not rely on the production of an art object. When searching for a definition, it is helpful to regard public art as the process of artists responding to the public realm’. 2

These brief outlines demonstrate that the broad concept of artist residencies and commissions comprise many varied and fluid models but have key issues in common:
 - The critical importance of a strategic context
 - Balancing the needs and expectations of a range of stakeholders, which include the artist and audiences
 - The consequent requirement for sensitive brokerage
 - Artists’ training, responsibilities and aptitude
 - The factor of time
 - Ethical considerations
 - Democracy and decision making
 - The notion of ‘community’; how to define and find a community
 - Collaboration, authorship and acknowledgement
 - Evaluation and how to define quality
 - What happens next
 - The concept of hosting

I have arrived at this list having initiated a range of artist residencies and commissions. This was firstly in the 1970s, working for a regional arts association across the North of England, and then over an eleven-year period as the director of a gallery. I started my career as an artist in residence at South Hill Park in Bracknell and now work as an artist alongside consultancy work and this editorship. The issues listed recur in the articles that follow, which reveal considerable dilemmas and challenges inherent to the complex practice of employing artists to work in the public realm.

The most crucial aspect of planning a residency or commission is the strategic context. Ideally the project should coherently further the aims and objectives of an organisation or agency, which negotiates this with potential partners and identifies what is expected of and for the artist.

Elaine Speight, Victoria Mayes and Deborah Dean provide very different examples of long-term strategies. Speight highlights the continuity of curator, intention and place in the ongoing In Certain Places 3 public art residenciesthat she co-curates in Preston. She proposes that with a programme that has ambitions to address a city, ‘Each residency could be understood as an element within what curator Paul O’Neil describes as a “constellation” of activities’ so that each artist adds to a ‘work in progress’. She concludes that this process depends on

notions of what it means to reside somewhere. By working alongside other residents, including business owners, community leaders, educators and artists, and inviting external perspectives, it is, I believe, possible to facilitate the creation of artworks which challenge the status quo whilst also respecting ad enhancing the existing qualities of a place’.

Mayes’ article about the current capital expansion of MK Gallery in Milton Keynes takes us back to the original MK Masterplan of around 1970, which set out an ambitious social as well as architectural vision for the new city. As an early and influential exponent of the ‘artist-in-residence’, the Development Corporation commissioned artists ‘to create works for public spaces and community arts projects designed to unify the first residents’. Running in parallel to the gallery’s capital project is a major artists’ commission for City Club, a new type of social space that draws on ideas for an un-built project of the same name from fifty years ago.

Dean describes Nottingham Castle Museum’s long-term strategy for the relationship between its audiences and artists, whereby audience groups have become integral to the commissioning process. Sectors of the audience have also become intermediaries between the museum, artists and wider audience. Dean makes these innovative ways of working sound natural and easy, which belies the careful strategic thought and time it has taken to build to this point: ‘it's been an incremental and gradual process over several years. The curators in my team are generally very 'audience focused' and happy to work with the public in this way - provided it's not on every project’.

The importance of strategic context for shorter-term projects has been evident with the Alexandra Reinhardt Memorial Award (ARMA) 4 which I have evaluated over the last four years. Funded by the Max Reinhardt Charitable Trust and managed by engage, each residency and commission is hosted for a year by a gallery or museum. As a one-off for the host venue, the project has far greater impact and potential legacies if it is conceived with clear objectives for the organisation and the development of its work. In their article Bec Fearon and Marie-Anne McQuay describe Bluecoat’s shift to integrated programming between curatorial and education, and indeed across the art centre. Bluecoat, Liverpool applied to host ARMA in 2015 specifically to test joint management of the project and provide a pilot for future work with artists.

Deborah Riding writes about a residency with Tate Liverpool’s young people group, that disrupts the usual power relations, challenges curatorial knowledge and control and is leading learning staff to question their roles. Assemble, a collective of artists, architects and designers that won the Turner Prize in 2015 are provoking and supporting the young people to question Tate and to develop and think through ideas for themselves. Tate Liverpool instigated this process and is keen to open up ‘a space in which liberated forms of exchange can actually develop’ but it could not foresee the risks or outcomes, or how unsettling it is proving – for staff and the young people.

This has, of course, been a long and at times painfully slow development, which has forced many members of staff to work outside their comfort zones…My hopes for the project as it nears its final phase early next year is that the challenges and freedoms it has presented us with will actually change our ways of working for the better – and enable us to see where more collaborative and innovative models of programming can positively alter our relationship with the gallery’s audiences.

The balance between the needs and expectations of different stakeholders, including the artist and audiences,is determined by theover-arching strategy for the project. Pippa Joiner describes a rare example of a local authority – the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames - working with partners to develop an appropriate and sustainable strategy for public art that seeks to involve communities, be sensitive to local interests and sites and generate greater appreciation and understanding of this urban environment. Joiner emphasises the importance of partnerships and arriving at a shared vision, assisted greatly in this case by the influence that Orleans House Gallery has had in setting principles and providing examples of good practice.

In 2014/15 artist Rabab Ghazoul undertook a residency with the Josef Herman Art Foundation 5, Wales, in partnership with Tate. Sarah Pace, the freelance Project Manager, celebrates the achievements of the residency whilst acknowledging the challenges of acting as a ‘fulcrum’ between the artist, local, regional and national partners, with a ‘complex web’ of aims and objectives. She usefully lists key areas of learning, including ‘the importance of maintaining a flexible approach and good communication channels’.

Whilst a number of the articles here pinpoint the drivers for the institution, the local authority or a defined community, fewer focus attention on the benefits or expected outcomes for the artist and their career.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) residency programme 6 represents an extraordinary opportunity for artists, designers, ceramicists, musicians – artists across the whole range of the arts – to access curators and collections for research and to interpret in different ways. Whilst this programme has a public focus and aims to engage new audiences, this is matched by the rich opportunity for professional development for artists, focusing on their creative practice at a high level. The planned expansion of the V&A to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London brings an even stronger imperative to work with audiences. However, it interestingly highlights a specific role for the museum in an area of London rich in artist studios but which are under threat from development. In her article Laura Cardera argues for a role for museums in supporting artists in finding structures and contexts to pursue their work.

Shân Edwards also reports on a residency programme designed to support artists. Celf O Gwmpas 7 in Wales has identified the problems that learning disabled artists face in establishing their practice, and how the challenges faced by all artists are magnified amongst learning disabled artists. Sensitive, personalised residencies bridge the gap between education and profession and between personal and public practice, through mentoring, engendering confidence, supporting networking and developing practical skills.

Several writers emphasise the need for a sensitive broker in initiating, designing and managing a residency or commission. This can ensure that the needs and views of stakeholders are considered throughout, the artist is supported and unplanned challenges are tackled effectively.

The Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World’s (CCANW) Soil Culture Residencies 8 placed artists in a variety of non-arts organisations. A shared understanding of the potential and nature of artist residencies was arrived at and maintained through the ‘intermediary’ – writer Sally Lai - who encompassed the roles of ‘coordinator, facilitator, interpreter, broker/matchmaker, critical friend, support, curator and initiator’.

Similarly, Speight succinctly unpicks the role of the curator as broker, who ‘seeks to produce the conditions for artistic practice, whilst attending to the expectations and sensitivities of all parties’.

Unsurprisingly, time is a key element in projects with artists, threading through many of the articles. Dean speaks for many when she states:

Each project has had its challenges of course, but I think the main one is ‘'not enough time'’ - this came up in most of the projects. There was a tight turn-round with all of them, so this sometimes put pressure on the artist to make work quickly, or on the exhibitions staff working to present outcomes of projects on top of an already busy lead-in time/exhibition installation schedule. Time to pause and reflect on evaluation can also be minimal before you're rushing on with the next project - and involving audiences and artists together in any kind of co-production generally takes longer than not. But the fantasy of a more measured pace, where you research, plan, deliver and evaluate before you go on to the next project, instead of them all overlapping, is a nice one!’

Fearon and McQuay emphasise the difference it made to artist Anne Harild’s ARMA residency and commission at Bluecoat, that she was able to use a studio at the centre and stay in a flat in Liverpool. This meant that she stayed for three days a week in Bluecoat rather than commuting from London for her two contact days, becoming part of the daily life of the centre and familiar to staff and participants.

High – maybe unrealistic - expectations and pressures can be placed on artists, particularly with a ‘socially engaged’ practice. It can be the case that artists feel that they are expected to fulfill a political agenda, in challenging circumstances and without adequate negotiation or brokerage.

Anthony Schrag and Alexia Mellor draw on their experience as artists to discuss ‘Socially Engaged Art’ (SEA). They define SEA as ‘practice that works towards active citizenship within the context of co-creation, open-ended critical interrogation and site-responsive inquiry’ and how instrumentalism can mitigate against this. In their article they cite the Artist Placement Group (APG) 9 – as does Speight – which emerged in London in the 1960s and pioneered the concept of art in the social context. Schrag and Mellor express concern that artist residencies can be highjacked to support political agendas or employed uncritically to serve a social end. They equally ‘recognise that organisations and artists can instrumentalise the practice to enact their own ideologies’.

APG’s objective ‘was always more about political, social, and long-term engagement than about parachuting artists into problem zones 10. Over the fifty plus years since the APG was formed – and particularly in recent years – this objectivehas been appropriated to many different ends, with artists often tasked with addressing complex social and political problems.

Instrumentalism is a key issue for the arts. Whilst this has been the case for a long time, commissioning services and reductions in public funding are leading to more projects that have to address a certain need and achieve quantifiable results. As local authority funding cuts dig deeper very few arts organisations will be in receipt of funding, and those that are will be funded to meet a social rather than cultural need.

Schrag provides a case study of one of Social Justice Programmes run by the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow. He was ‘selected to work with identified young people in the east of Glasgow to develop art projects that might have an ameliorative effect on the participants via a creative inquiry into sectarianism’.

‘Once the project began it quickly became apparent that the issues faced by the young people were only superficially related to sectarianism but due to systemic poverty. Schrag felt he could not affect this social inequality. He also realised that the artist was being located as an ersatz social worker, in the sense that the goals of the project located in a specific “social inclusion” ideology and the artist was being employed as a “service provider” to neoliberal politics’.

This experience raises the issues of artists’ aptitude for this kind of residency – which is dependent on political belief, commitment and personal qualities. Also the nature of the considerable responsibilities that they take on, and the training available for such practice.

Abi Goodman also highlights issues and problems inherent to socially engaged practice, through the case study of artist Ania Bas who undertook a year-long residency at the Parson Cross estate in Sheffield. Bas ‘believes the main skill of the participatory artist is to be able to ask ‘’uncomfortable questions’’ and to make ‘’uncomfortable decisions’’. She goes so far as to describe herself as “vessel, host, support structure, service provider, assassin”.

Bas succeeded in provoking strong reactions from some residents, which left her in a vulnerable position.

‘Reflecting on her time on the estate Bas stated that she came away feeling very uncomfortable. She felt as is she was being used as an example of an aspirational lifestyle, ‘entrepreneurial, can-do attitude, educationed [sic], engaged’ which left her with a ‘huge ethical problem’. She did not want to be ‘convincing people that the precarious life of a freelancer is [a] better choice than being in employment or on benefits’.

Research by the ArtWorks programme reveals the range of skills and aptitudes that artists need for participatory practice, and the lack of training available 11. The majority of artists learn through non-formal training on the job, and although this is effective it is unstructured and more opportunities for shadowing and mentoring would be valuable.

Manjinder Sidhu refers to the ArtWorks programme in her article, which reflects on the ethical issues associated with participatory practice. ‘As a participatory artist working with adults in galleries and communities, ethical relationships are fundamental to my practice of interactive interpretation. But how do I know if I am working ethically? And how can I keep this question live, in practice?’ Sidhu introduces the new ArtWorks Alliance Code of Practice for participatory artists and talks to colleagues about how it might work in practice.

Schrag and Mellor (as with Goodman and Bas) are concerned about the ethics of employing artists to address perceived social problems, which have – in some situations - been identified for a community, not by that community. This is unethical for the participants but also places the artist in an invidious position.

‘The participants were therefore perceived as somehow flawed and the community in need of fixing, and the institution (the city council-funded GoMA) employed its dominant position to address these flaws via the transformative potential of art. In this case art was being used as a tool of social renewal without analysis of what this ‘renewal’ meant, to whom, why it was necessary and who might benefit’.

In developing participatory working and a socially engaged practice artists – and many of those that commission them – are committed to an ethical, democratic and collaborative relationship with a community or participants. However, ensuring democratic decision-making and genuine collaboration can prove difficult, and is time consuming, certainly with the projects described by Schrag, Mellor and Goodman.

Sarah Plumb reports on how Kettles Yard has approached its Open House programme, an off-site project in North Cambridge. This draws on Grant Kester’s ‘ethical debates around “empowerment” in community-based public arts’ 12 where he highlights the dangers of artists taking on the role of speaking for a community. Open House introduced his notion of a ‘politically coherent’ community panel and Plumb explores how this ‘can engender more equitable relations between gallery, artist and community through sharing decision-making processes’. These key gatekeepers represent the wider community, were involved in identifying the long-term aims and objectives for the project and in selecting the first artist. However, Plumb and Karen Thomas (Community Officer, Kettle’s Yard) can see that they missed an opportunity to discuss what quality might look like for the first residency. Fortunately, with a series of three residencies planned, there are opportunities to extend and further embed the concept of the community panel.

Susan Rowe Harrison brings her experience of working in schools in the USA to discuss this very different notion of community from that described by Plumb. The community is defined but still has its challenges, including for teachers, who can become resistant to the extra work hosting an artist entails and who have become risk averse due to the ‘pressures of curriculum, assessment and results’. Rowe Harrison emphasises the exchange and respect that is crucial to successful collaboration, extolling ‘a relationship of mutual mentoring between adults and young people, artist and participants, and teacher and community partner’.

The idea of ‘community’ is a difficult one to pin down and several articles question what is meant by ‘community’, and how to define and find a community. A community might be defined by the project’s aims, as in Bas’ residency on an estate in Sheffield. There is no guarantee that this community welcomes or is even interested in the project.

In Bojama Panevska’s article, artist Sepake Angiama ruefully describes one experience, ‘Even though I visited Utrecht previously I had expected that the project would work because how could the residents not be interested in my proposal? But of course people were indifferent and the project didn’t operate as a community project with my direct neighbours from that locality. I needed to find a temporary community that was interested in engaging with my proposal’.

The discussion between Panevska and Angiama pinpoints that residencies are fundamentally about relationships, and they take time to identify and develop. They emphasise the social context and compare the need for time to get to know each other to falling in love: ‘But there is no guarantee, it is impossible to predict what kind of relationships you can potentially develop in a certain time frame. It is like falling in love, you don’t know where and when it will happen, but it happens in different ways and with different people’.

The question of ethics arises again with collaboration, ownership and authorship. Angiama asks ‘I just wonder where the responsibility lies in those relationships that are formed through your work and your practice? Is there an ethical question that should be addressed?’ And Panevska responds, ‘Of course what wouldn’t be ethical is that you go somewhere as an artist and use people and their stories as props for your art and never acknowledge that’.

Plumb’s article discusses how socially engaged and collaborative practices are valued, to what extent community participants can be considered co-authors, and how multiple authors are recognised. She goes on to suggest an alternative approach to recognising community participants’ contributions through the concept of ‘shared guardianship’.

Collaboration and authorship bring us on to evaluation and how to define quality in participatory projects. What criteria should be brought to evaluating projects where the process is as, or more, important than artistic product? Where the outcomes may be arrived at through participation or collaboration what can be understood by the notion of quality, and what does success looks like?

Several writers have quoted Claire Bishop 13 who critiques other literature, ‘particularly…for focusing on the process of creating work and its social benefits rather than the artistic value and aesthetic of the final outcome’. For example, Goodman discusses evaluation and developing an appropriate methodology at some length, referencing Bishop, Dezeuze, Bourriaud, Kester and Deveron Arts. She concludes by highlighting that in the case of Bas, the artist, her commissioner and members of the community had quite different understandings of what might be considered successful.  

One consideration in evaluating a residency or commission is what happens next. Where there is a long-term strategy and a project is part of a series of initiatives this can be judged in terms of a building process, through tracking how an organisation and its practices have shifted over time. Speight can look back at Certain Places and see that ‘the embodied engagement of artists has led to a number of small, but significant shifts within Preston – most notably a less risk averse and more creative approach to urban development within the city council.’

Edwards can point to how residencies at Celf O Gwmpas have enabled individual artists to develop their careers, going on to receive commissions, to exhibit or establish more permanent relationships with the centre and Project Ability.

Angiama finds it difficult to give a straight answer to what the community gains from artist residencies, the answer always being specific to the project and context. But she is able to cite one example, a residency for Manifesta 9, which took place in Genk. ‘One of the community mediation projects gathered people who were former miners to meet regularly to take part in creative projects. They made drawings that were published in a book and retold their stories to their community. The interesting thing is that they continued to meet after Manifesta 9 closed and they even made their own exhibition’.

Pace cites the involvement of two local choirs that were involved in the Mining Josef Herman project as a particularly successful element, a primary intergenerational element with three generations of singers working together. And this is an experience that might forge a legacy as the choirs are keen to continue collaborating.

Last but not least I would underline the concept of hosting, which is intentionally used in the subtitle for this Journal. If residencies and commissions are determined by relationships then the welcome and hospitality associated with hosting are fundamental to their success. Artists, including Mellor and Emma Smith in North Cambridge (Plumb), often use hospitality and create convivial places for people to meet as a key means of gaining engagement and opening up discussion.

Angiama, in exploring how communities are found for projects, remembers warmly when she was one of seven artists working on a project in the village of Villasor, Sardinia. ‘Another interesting aspect was that every day someone from the area would come to the house where we lived and cook for us. Not everyone could speak the same language but in that time spent in the kitchen we got to know each of these people’s personal stories, through gesticulation, body language, tone of voice and of course, making food…Real conversation needs a relaxed environment’.

A brief reference is made in Riding’s article to a key session that Tate’s young people had over a meal at Metal at Edgehill, Liverpool. Metal 14 was founded in 2002 by Jude Kelly, and now has bases in Liverpool, Southend-on-Sea and Peterborough. Metal supports and hosts artists through mentoring, intensive research and development labs and residencies, organises large-scale participatory projects and acts as a catalyst in communities, bringing together a wide range of organisations, agencies and individuals. Mark Richards, Director at Metal Peterborough, lists hospitality – and food – as a key ingredient in this mix. Hospitality is crucial to Metal’s approach to creating the opportunities for people to meet, make connections, and develop innovative and collaborative ideas.Having opened in Peterborough 2012, Richards has the satisfaction of seeing a distinct shift in the number and variety of professional artists from across the UK and beyond wanting to come and spend time in the city. ‘Those that may have attended a development LAB or applied for a small commission are now coming back to undertake residencies, developing deeper relationships with both the city and its communities. We are trying to build supportive and sustained relationships with artists on their journey’.

Notes
1. http://www.transartists.org/residency-history
2. http://ixia-info.com/about-public-art
3. http://incertainplaces.org
4. http://www.alexandrareinhardt.net
5. http://josefhermanfoundation.org/about/foundation/
6. http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/m/museum-residency-programme/
7. http://www.celfogwmpas.org
8. http://ccanw.co.uk/artist-residencies.htm
9. http://www2.tate.org.uk/artistplacementgroup/
10. www2.tate.org.uk/artistplacementgroup/overview.htm
11. http://artworksalliance.org.uk/evidence/training-development/
12. Kester, G. (1995), ‘Aesthetic evangelists: conversation and empowerment in contemporary community art’, in Afterimage Jan, pp.5-21
13. Bishop, C. (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso
14. http://www.metalculture.com/about-us

 

engage 37

engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists

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