How to Do Community-Based Artist Residencies

By Victoria Hutter
a woman sits outside a laundromat with a sign

Betty Yu at her table in in a project highlighting unfair working conditions in Brooklyn’s garment industry that was part of the Laundromat Project in 2012. Currently Yu is one of three artists that make up the Chinatown Art Brigade, a 2016 Blade of Grass Fellow for Socially Engaged Art. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It sounds simple enough. An arts organization or a community based-organization (a nonprofit that works locally to improve life for residents) is interested in doing a project that uses the arts to help advance a social issue. It could be centered on a placemaking effort in a neighborhood or helping prevent incidents of gun violence among youth. The organization selects an artist or artists to come to their facility to be in residence to work with it and the people affected by the issue. The participants care about the issue and want the project to be a success. What could go wrong? As it turns out, plenty.

Community-based artist residencies can be powerful and positive experiences that enhance the quality of life for those involved, enrich an artist’s practice, and create great art. But the residency’s success depends heavily on how it is structured. Expectations, goals, processes, communication, and more come into play and need to be addressed, often long before the work begins.

Deborah Fisher is the executive director of Blade of Grass, an organization that nurtures socially engaged art. Betty Yu is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, educator, activist and co-founder of the Chinatown Art Brigade, a cultural collective. Both Deborah and Betty have been part of successful community-based artist residencies and we asked them to talk about some of the key elements of those residencies. (What follows is an edited transcript of their phone conversation.)

DEBORAH FISHER:  So, Betty, let me ask you. What advice do you have for community organizations that are thinking about inviting artists into their work?

BETTY YU:  The advice I have—it sounds so simple— is to be really clear about the objectives and goals you are trying to get out of collaborating with an artist on a program, project, or campaign. It’s important that the staff, the volunteers, the pool of people in the community organization get on the same page about what they want from an artist residency.

FISHER:  One thing I see happen is that a community organization identifies a problem among members [those the organization serves] that’s particularly intractable in some way and the organization looks to artists to help solve the problem. But the organization doesn’t necessarily know what the artist can do. How do you clarify expectations and at the same time allow for unexpected results to emerge?

YU:  I think this applies to any organization that has a base of people they’re working with on an issue. If the organization doesn’t have relationships with artists what the organization tends to do is very late in their work on an issue say to artists, “We have this campaign or this organizing effort and can you come in on this for one day and make posters, or take photos, or record an event and make a short documentary?” In many cases, artists are secondary, instead of being a part of a project from the very beginning.

FISHER:  What you’re saying is that artists actually are visionaries who can play a much more integral role in creating projects, outreach efforts, rezoning campaigns, etc.

YU:  Yes, but at the same time, I’ve worked in community organizations where there are community members who have lots of skills that aren’t tapped into. The staff will look outside of the organization for skills instead of also drawing from the strengths of their own people.

FISHER:  So one of the things that an artist needs to do before they offer to work with an organization is a lot of homework to get a clear sense of what the community organization might be missing. What’s your advice for artists who are trying to get up to speed on what is a community organization’s perspective?

YU:  Artists have to be in the thick of things early on. Community organizations are going to look at you sideways if all of a sudden you go in with a very specific project in mind and just tell the organization what they should implement. It means spending time [in the community]. I know that’s not the most practical for people who are struggling as artists. But, whatever time you can carve out.

FISHER:  In order to build trust, an artist should take the perspective of the organization and the organization should take the perspective of the artist. It’s a story of a reciprocity, in which the artist and the organization are engaged in a relatively equal partnership.

YU:  Right. The artists themselves need to know what their project goals are and their timeframe because organizations are long-term. They are working in 15/20/30 year time frames. So if you aren’t really specific and you don’t communicate your start and finish time with the organization, there can be a lot of frustration.

FISHER:  Right. Community organizations need to be approached with a sense of duration. Because one of the things that’s magical about artists and organizations working together is that it can be very open-ended and transformative.

YU:  It’s important to be open and to be willing to be transformed and maybe even challenged. That can be hard, I’m not going to lie, but it’s been extremely positive in terms of how I see myself now as an artist and as a cultural worker.

FISHER:  I just want to make one more point because being open to challenge is another one of those reciprocal values. Blade of Grass is always trying to maintain a very clear perception of our own institutional power and thinking about that as creatively as possible. One of the reasons we’re a successful organization is because we’re embracing that change.

YU:  And another very important thing for an artist is to ask themselves, “Am I the right person to work with this organization that I want to approach?”

FISHER:  Yes, as an artist are you thinking about your own privilege and cultural background? Are you from the neighborhood you’re working in? If so, how does that long-term relationship to the place help advance your goals? If you’re not, is your perspective as someone new helpful in a tangible way?

YU:  Exactly.

Interested in learning more about creative placemaking and community? Check out Exploring Our Town