Quit the Art World? There’s a Residency for That

by Rea McNamara on May 12, 2016 Newswire

Credit: RFAOH

Credit: RFAOH

When an artist stops making work and attending shows, is there any chance the art world will remember them? No. For many, this just means one less artist to compete against for a grant application or open call.

Enter Residency For Artists on Hiatus (RFAOH), an organization dedicated to supporting artists who have put their practice on hold. During the course of the online residency, which lasts six months to a year, artists must produce a non-art project. Artists are then expected to maintain a blog on the residency’s website to not only reflect on and document the process, but examine what it means to suspend their art careers. (I wrote about the virtual residency program a few months ago.) Earlier this year, the residency was on hiatus itself: the project has largely been self-funded by co-directors Shinobu Akimoto and Matthew Evans, and they were awaiting news of institutional support. Last week, RFAOH announced their third open call for applications to its 2016/2017 programme, thanks to funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.

To go from self-funding to scoring support from Canada’s national public arts funder is a huge jump. The $10,300 visual arts grant RFAOH received will cover online ads, residents’ stipends, and operational expenses like website hosting. “This was our seventh trial,” acknowledges co-director Shinobu Akimoto when I called for an update on the programme. “We never thought we’d get it, but we got it.” After many efforts to hook up with a big institution or receive support from a regional funder, the Montreal-based artist is appreciative they’re no longer out of pocket on a project that has very much been a DIY effort since it launched in 2013.

“We were very happy both for the funds to be able to do the project one more time and for the acknowledgement of the public art institution that the project was worth funding,” Akimoto and Evans explained later via email. “One of the things we wanted to try to do with the project from the start was to mitigate and provide this kind of institutional reification to artists who aren’t currently making art.”

During the three years of RFAOH’s existence, the organization has created its own institutional structure: they have an advisory board, and an application process open to “non-art” project proposals from international artists with a pre-existing body of work. Ideal candidates are literally those that are not currently making or presenting art. “Being an artist is such a weird condition, particularly when you are doing something internet-based,” says Akimoto. “You feel like you are not making anything. I always felt like I was on a 24/7 hiatus, and I only became an artist when I show or I make an object. Who decides?”

So far, the programme has hosted twelve “on-hiatus” artists. Once selected, artists are expected to commit to a minimum of six months to the virtual residency, and contribute two blog posts per month tracking their progress. Artists receive a small monthly stipend, and at the end of their residency, submit a final report. All of this documentation is gathered on RFAOH’s website, and will be eventually included in a catalogue.

The projects range in scope. There are those that focus on furthering hobbies or fulfilling personal life endeavours, like focusing on cultivating an organic garden for leisure or renovating an old family farmhouse. Others reflect the challenges of artists struggling to find balance amid their professional obligations: Kelly Malec-Kosak, the chair of Fine Arts at Columbus College of Art and Design, chose as her project the overwhelming task of restructuring her institution’s fine arts curriculum.

The irony, however, is that some of the past residents have been unable to fulfill the requirements of the residency. “They apply with really interesting projects that just got to be too much work for them, and they kind of go hiatus “on hiatus” activities,” says Akimoto. When that’s happened, Akimoto says RFAOH gives artists the opportunity to withdraw from their residency — there’s no penalty — even though artists assure they still want to fulfill it. “Maybe it’s an artist’s identity thing? They are always like, ‘no no no, I will totally post soon.’ We can’t force them.”

One of these residents is Ryan Ringer. The Toronto-based artist, who participated in the 2014/2015 residency, proposed as his project sharing the process of building and opening Grey Tiger, a vegan cafe-slash-cocktail bar in Toronto’s Bloordale neighborhood. After the closing of Project 165, a Kensington Market storefront gallery and studio space, the self-described social convenor went on hiatus, focusing on his bar craft and hospitality career. “I got to a point where my personal life was falling apart,” he says. “So I had to walk away from everything and re-evaluate what I was doing, not only artistically, but as a person.”

Even though Ringer appreciated having the opportunity during his residency to consider how his professional work life and artistic life dovetailed, he found he wasn’t able to keep up with the residency’s blogging commitment.

And the stipend, it turns out, is very small: $30 a month. This means a resident earns a total of $180 for a six month long residency, or $360 for the year. “I felt pressured to promote and there was no final physical thing,” he says. “No exhibition, nothing to incentivize that hustle.” While he found the residency to ultimately to be a positive experience, it in some ways also highlighted his evolving priorities, and movement away from the never-ending cycle of grant applications. He feels the programme would benefit in having aspects of a IRL residency: organized critique, or even a real-time conversation among its remote international residents.

RFAOH doesn’t charge any residency fees, but Akimoto recognizes the need for improvement. She allows that RFAOH may increase their stipend if they accept fewer residents, and they’re working at improving the website’s technical backend to make it less arduous for residents to blog, as well as increasing its SEO so the blog reaches a wider audience. “Having said that, the motivational part really depends on each resident as well, and we cannot control that one,” she says. “We have constantly emailed them not to ‘push’ but to ‘stay in touch’ and we will not change that part. After all we are talking about ‘institutional pressures’ so to do it differently from the real world institutions is one of our goals.”

Indeed, it might be a bit much to expect a residency slowly shifting from being a DIY effort to one with institutional support to solve all the economic problems of the art world. At the very least, then, it’s giving artists with a removed perspective on the art world the forum and visibility to work through the often unseen everyday struggles of being a non-practicing artist.

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