Creating Space: Artist-in-Residence Programs House Media Makers
Jirasuradej made the rounds, staying at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois, and at New Hampshire s MacDowell Colony, culling through hours of videotape at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, working out her storyline at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island in Washington state, and, while living off-site, finishing her final cut at Berkeley s Kala Art Institute. By the end of the period from August 1999 to May 2001, Mama Wahunzi, Jirasuradej s documentary about disabled women who make their own wheelchairs, was ready for its online edit. In the final tally, the filmmaker estimates that the value of her residencies amounted to more than $20,000.
Why more filmmakers don t take advantage of residency programs is only partially a mystery to Cheryl Young, director of MacDowell, which was founded in 1907 and is one of the oldest artist-in-residence programs in the United States. "For composers, writers, and visual artists, it s a tradition. [Residencies are] just not on the career path for filmmakers; it s not on their radar screen."
Getting residency programs on filmmakers radar is partly the job of the Alliance of Artists Communities (AAC), a Rhode Island-based nonprofit which serves as a collective voice for artists colonies, promoting visibility among donors and foundations, providing a support network, and advocating at the national level. According to Deborah Obalil, director of the seven-year-old organization, "Filmmakers ask, What s the difference between my mixing suite at home and a residency? All I can tell them is that there s something about changing your environment that gives you the freedom to think about things in a different way - just changing the four walls around you." MacDowell s Young concurs but on a more practical level: "They don t know how great it is to have lunch delivered to their door - without being interrupted."
Obalil, who has been director of AAC since 1998, says that increasing numbers of residencies are accommodating film, video, and new-media makers. She estimates that 25 percent of the programs now have editing facilities, up from 13 percent in 1997. Most residency programs, however, cannot provide the kinds of expensive equipment and continual upgrades needed by today s filmmakers and multidisciplinary artists. "Programs lean over backwards to have artists come in, but have not been able to make the necessary capital improvements," she says. "For the same reason, it is difficult to invite choreographers and installation artists. Residency programs cannot afford to build the necessary studios." On the other hand, explains Obalil, "At certain points in their projects, artists don t have equipment needs. They can use the quiet time to reflect, to rejuvenate. Simply reading and writing can spur on new ideas."
Each year, MacDowell invites approximately 18 to 20 filmmakers, out of a total of 240 artists, to the colony. Young says most of the attending filmmakers work in the digital realm, the equipment for which is increasingly portable. "They bring it all with them," she says. Young also makes the point that artists working in other disciplines that require expensive or cumbersome equipment are still able take advantage of residencies. "If you are an architect, you can t build a building up there," she says, "but you can sketch some ideas."
As funding for arts and humanities becomes more difficult to secure, AAC s Obalil says filmmakers are recognizing the value of residency programs: unfettered time to generate new ideas, to complete a particular phase of a work in progress, to develop a site-specific project, to train in some aspect of their field, or to connect with artists in other fields. According to Obalil, growth in the numbers of filmmakers seeking admission to various types of residencies usually mirrors shrinking resources in arts funding. "In the 90s, when the NEA eliminated its individual artists fellowships, we saw a growth spurt. Now, those artists who learned how to get money from state arts councils are finding that money has dried up, so we ve seen another spurt in the last couple years."
At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, associate curator of film and video Sheryl Mousley selects one filmmaker each year to work on a specific project and to interact with the Minneapolis community by teaching or presenting work to the public. In 1999, filmmaker Cheryl Dunye was writing the script for her narrative film Stranger Inside, the story of a mother and daughter who meet for the first time in prison, and wanted the feedback of incarcerated women. Through AMICUS, a local organization that helps inmates reenter society, Walker arranged for Dunye to spend a few weeks working with women at a nearby prison in order to shape her fictional characters and achieve authentic dialogue. Collage filmmaker Craig Baldwin was invited to assist aspiring filmmakers at the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council looking to make use of a recently discovered trove of found footage. Under Baldwin s tutelage, several of the students crafted new films, and Baldwin himself created a short piece, all of which were shown at the NAMAC conference in October 2000. "We select the artist," says Mousley, "and find out what we can handle, how we can get involved."
Sometimes that involvement has little to do with film. Walker invited Alan Berliner as its artist in residence when he was making his documentary The Sweetest Sound, about people who share his name. "We wanted to make connections to the community immediately around Walker," recalls Mousley. "So Alan took the names of everyone who lived within a three-mile radius and made a list of them in alphabetical order." The list was then displayed like the donor plaques that adorn museum entranceways.
Walker hopes to expand its residency program, currently supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lila Wallace Reader s Digest Fund, but Mousley is cautious, citing "this unusual economic climate." Earlier this year, seven people at Walker were let go, and the film and video department is down one employee, after someone resigned in February and Walker could not afford to hire a replacement. "We may cut back our programs, on the number of films shown. Try to do fewer expensive things," explains Mousley.
Part of Walker s mission is to engage as broad an audience as possible, something donors certainly are happy to support. After Dunye completed her script for Stranger Inside, Walker helped organize a performance for the prison population, using the original twelve women in Dunye s group, and also staged a reading at Walker with local professional actors, featuring historical photographs projected in the background. "The residencies promote a deep engagement with a small group of people that comes from whatever an artist is working on," says Mousley. "Then we try to broaden it."
Not all programs can reach wide audiences, rendering the struggle for funding even more difficult. For Marge Meyers, who heads the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, developing a large audience is rarely appropriate. "Our projects involve one or two individuals," she says. "Not a lot of people want to operate in that small of a constituency." The STUDIO - which has hosted such filmmakers as Reggie Allen, Portia Cobb, Ken Love, Demetria Royals, and animator James Duesing - offers residencies to artists who then collaborate with the scientific community at the Pittsburgh university. "We re not Yaddo," explains Meyers. "Our main job is to develop huge projects, which are initiated in the form of a residency. That s the launch point. The most successful people stay five years if they can develop other funding sources."
Meyers describes the residency at the STUDIO as "research," something not usually thought of as applicable to artistic endeavor. "It s understood for the sciences," she says, "but there s no such thing as research in the arts, except for art history." Obtaining monies from sources in the sciences, therefore, is usually easier for the STUDIO. "The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the EPA have all funded us," says Meyers. "The secret has been collaboration with established scientists." After ten years and half dozen projects, Meyers laments that the majority of arts funders still lack understanding of the STUDIO s mission. "We still don t have the language to talk about what we do. In general, [they] don t understand experimental work and don t spend their resources on it."
Being housed at Carnegie-Mellon offers the STUDIO access to scientists working on the cutting edge, as well as security and prestige. However, the arrangement can lead to conflicts between the university s needs and the aims of the residency program. After evaluating the program, Carnegie-Mellon required the STUDIO to achieve a measurable, positive impact on the student body. To that end, Meyers agreed to incorporate student employees into some of the projects, an initiative the STUDIO might not have taken without prodding from the university. "We are nested here," says Meyers. "We don t want them to kick us out."
This particular compromise ultimately suited the STUDIO s needs. "The students here are so skilled that both students and artists can benefit." However, she speculates that in order to attract steady funding the STUDIO may have to make the less appealing compromise of restricting the parameters of artistic collaborations to three "threads" in science. "Will the artist be drawn to robotics? We don t know. We can t predict what the artists will do, nor do we want to limit it."
According to Meyers, funding for the STUDIO s program is further complicated by the current political climate in the United States. Politicians and religious leaders are scrutinizing funding for science in the same way that conservatives questioned arts funding during the Mapplethorpe controversy, which ultimately led to the elimination of the NEA s individual artists grants. "Conservatives say, This science stuff looks creepy to me. Stem cell research is wrong. Why go into space? " she explains. Meyers goes on to say that scientific inquiry needs continual support, and the STUDIO s program in particular can help navigate the new ethical and moral territory tread by scientific discovery. "We need communicators to tell us what this stuff is about," says Meyers. "Artists are really good at that."
Stephanie Gray, development director of Squeaky Wheel, says the Buffalo media arts center s artist-in-residence programs, essentially access programs for local and international filmmakers, are heartily supported by funders such as the NEA. Each year since 2000, the international residency has offered one mid-career filmmaker - including Julie Murray, Anne Robertson, Mike Kuchar, and Diane Bonder - a month-long opportunity to train on a nonlinear digital editing system, allowing for the tools and instruction to bridge their professional digital divides. "It s not a coincidence that the money Squeaky Wheel has received is through grant programs with access in the title," says Gray. "Art, especially expensive art like film and video, with all of its complicated technological requirements, should not only be made by those who can afford it."
Squeaky Wheel s residency program for local filmmakers began as part of the organization s mission to provide access to those who can t normally find support. "[It] ended up paying for itself, because artists who participated in the program came back to rent the equipment or volunteer in exchange for equipment," says Gray. NEA has funded the international residencies since the program s inception in 2000, though Squeaky Wheel is always looking for more avenues of support. Gray says hopes for expansion - supplying film stock and videotape, providing an in-house apartment/studio for year-round visiting artists, offering longer time frames for residencies, increasing funding for curated screenings, and having more full-time staff on hand to manage the program - will likely have to wait. "In this fragile arts funding climate," explains Gray, "Squeaky Wheel wishes to focus on maintaining and stabilizing this program."
Squeaky Wheel s hesitance in pursuing expansion is not exclusively related to financial concerns. Gray says restricting growth allows for greater flexibility in responding to artists needs. "Artists and nonprofits have so many hoops to jump through, we don t wish to make their lives more difficult by creating any more paperwork or red tape than is necessary. Squeaky s facilities are small and flexible, and we wish to keep it that way."
Remaining small is appealing to another New York-state media center, Experimental Television Center, located in the upstate town of Owego. Since 1971, the center has provided lodging and five-day training programs for more than 1,200 film, video, and new-media makers interested in experimenting with its image processing system, a hybrid analog-digital tool. According to Sherry Miller Hocking, who has been with the center since 1972, "resources constantly expand and contract with the economy and political climate. We have always tried to maintain an economy of scale as far as the center is concerned. We are happy to be rather small." Still, funding for the program has always been difficult. "A residency program by nature is speculative," she explains. "There are no guarantees about the works which will be created."
The speculative nature of the creative work done at residencies is precisely what makes support of artist-in-residence programs so crucial for the arts and for culture as a whole, especially during times of political and social upheaval. "The creative process has no set schedule," says AAC s Deborah Obalil. "Residencies are truly unique and integral to the total structure for artists." Without the time and space provided by artist-in-residence programs, the arts might find a way. However, the struggle would sap artists strength and diminish their output, thereby depriving us of crucial artistic interpretations of our times.
"It s not about the fame; it s not about the next big work," says Obalil. "It s about giving trust to artists to do whatever they need to do. You may not see the results until three years down the road, but you know that the seeds were planted at the residency."
Shari Kizirian is the managing editor of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco.
© 2003 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.