Saying yes to who or what turns up1
In 2010, when I had just begun a ten-year tenure as Director of Programs and Exhibitions at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn—a residency-based institution that has hosted curatorial residents since 1999—I wanted to read some of the literature that specifically focused on curatorial residencies. Surprisingly, writing on the subject of curatorial residencies was practically nonexistent. Around the same time, the Goethe-Institut announced their relaunch of MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38, giving curators based in Germany carte blanche to program Ludlow 38’s Lower East Side space for an entire year while living in the city.
Eager to produce more knowledge on curatorial residencies, I asked Tobi Maier, the first curatorial resident of Ludlow 38, to collaborate with me on convening a panel of curators2 to speak about their experiences participating in residencies. We began our discussion by framing questions such as: What impact can curatorial residencies have on research and production? In what way do they relate to various forms of institutional approaches? How are they defined in relation to artist residencies? Do curators and artists have the same residency needs? Have curatorial residencies developed in tandem with curating as a profession? What are the expectations of curators and hosts?
In the past twenty years, residencies have become an integral part of the contemporary art ecosystem. Fundamentally, they provide the time and space for focused research and production within a supportive institutional structure while building connections across cultures and differences. Artists and curators often travel to new places for residencies located in both urban and rural settings, to become part of usually temporary but sometimes lasting communities. These social encounters fuel their practices, benefit local culture, and form global cultural networks. Part community center, part laboratory, and part academy3, residencies are now part and parcel of the production and dissemination of contemporary art.
As residencies proliferate globally, so do the expectations. It is generally assumed that, along with financial support, meritorious residencies offer the resources to produce work while providing access to an expanded cultural network. There are numerous complexities that a residency program must balance: the expectations of residents and funders, whether to implement a research or a production model, how to build enduring relationships, and how to catalyze meaningful sociopolitical engagement and cultural exchange within a particular locale. Today residencies play a crucial role as spaces of autonomy, independence, and experimentation for productive activities, especially given that many museums and art institutions place low priority on the commissioning of new work and research. In fact, the production of artwork or curatorial research in institutions often involves long-term engagement and economic commitment, and posits a risk for conventionally-minded institutions. As art institutions are more focused on exhibition making, audience development, and education, cultural producers can become reliant on residencies as a way of sustaining their practice, not just bolstering it.
Art residencies began in the nineteenth century as utopian sites outside of cities. These rural colonies, such as MacDowell in New Hampshire and Yaddo in New York, aimed to give artists a place to come together and exchange ideas in isolation. In the 1960s and ’70s, as industry declined in the United States, there was an exodus from urban centers, with artists moving into former factories, sometimes founding alternative spaces and residency programs there. Artist-centric institutional initiatives in the United States gained more traction when the National Endowment for the Arts defunded individual artists in 1994. Conversely, artist residencies proliferated in many Western European countries due to an increase in funding for residencies by government arts councils in the early 1990s.
Alongside rapid globalization, the growing importance of cities, and the transformation of some artistic practices into non-material activities, residencies have proliferated worldwide since the 1990s. Digital technologies and cheaper international travel provided ample opportunities for artists who wanted to work elsewhere, on-site, and in research-based approaches. The studio as a romanticized seclusionary space was dead—now artists wanted to move, collaborate, and engage with communities, bringing an alter-global dimension to local contexts. These new artistic and curatorial modes necessitated institutional structures that facilitated this kind of work. Within these evolving geo-specific cultural conditions, the curator emerged as a cultural actor whose research and production became indispensable to artistic production.
The neoliberal capitalism of the 1990s and 2010s demanded and created new subjects who could be flexible, engaged, and everywhere at the same time. The number of countries/biennials/residencies listed on an artist’s CV provides a glimpse of success for these adaptable cultural actors. Therefore, residencies are not merely transitory homes and work bases but rather function as hubs within an international network of contemporary artistic production. Residencies are sought-after and abundant, with thousands of art residencies in the world, and 80 in New York City alone. Their models and what they offer—not only to their residents but also to the art field and the public—span a wide range of programs.
Today, residencies are positioned at the intersections of the unsettled dichotomies of private and public, home and elsewhere, temporary and permanent4. Within this context, curatorial practice needs to adapt to the changing needs of cultural production. Despite the growth of academic curatorial programs, an increasing number of independent curators, and the expansion of the curatorial field in general, curatorial residencies are less common than artist residencies. At present, no official tally of curatorial residencies exists. The “C” for “curatorial” was added to ISCP’s name in 1999, five years after its founding, when the first curator Martina Pachmanova—who was from the Czech Republic—participated in the program. However, even today, only a few curators among nearly a hundred artists are in residence each year. While artist residencies have existed for over a century, and their usefulness to artists is widely understood, there is a lack of financial support for curatorial residencies. Residencies are foremost perceived as support institutions that provide studio space to artists, although residencies do much more than that. The idea of a curatorial residency still seems curious to many supporters of contemporary art. If residencies are most commonly associated with studio space, the primary doubt about the benefit of curatorial residencies tends to be: why do curators need studio space?
Most curatorial residencies do not actually offer space beyond a desk or office—Ludlow 38 being an exception—and the potential impact of curatorial residencies on a curator’s research and practice is significant. ISCP’s curatorial residency program was one of the world’s first. Other well-respected curatorial residencies include HIAP (Helsinki International Artist Programme in partnership with Frame Finland), Delfina Foundation (London), Rupert (Vilnius), Kai Art Center (Tallinn), Tokyo Arts and Space (TOKAS), Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Young Curators Residency Programme (Turin), Ming Contemporary Art Museum (McaM, Shanghai), Artpace (San Antonio), studio das weisse haus (Vienna), ONASSIS AiR (Athens), and Raw Material Company (Dakar). The absence of a large network of curatorial residencies prevents curators from becoming “residency-hoppers,” a critical term used for artists who go from one residency to another.
How do these residencies support curatorial practice? While their structures, duration, and resources vary, they all offer a community in which to advance one’s ideas and practice, as well as the opportunity to gather firsthand knowledge while working closely with a variety of artists, often local, with the possibility for future collaborations. Curatorial residencies have the potential to produce immediate tangible results, as hosting an international curator often leads to opportunities for artists, new collaborations, and intellectual production in the form of art writing, public discussions, and exhibitions.
Carving out time for in-depth curatorial research is difficult for a curator who works full-time at an art institution where the priorities are usually fundraising, administration, budgeting, and program production. There are no institutionalized research sabbaticals comparable to those at universities5. In theory, residencies offer the time and space to develop research, enabling access to local archives, collections, and artists; stepping away from the rhythms and responsibilities of institutional commitments leads to a revived approach and the opportunity to recontextualize one’s practice. Residencies also engender new social alliances, and the artist/curator relationship is frequently at the center of curatorial residencies.
In other words, the open-endedness of residencies give curators the chance to work without the usual pressures of institutional life, generally leading to more flexible and freer collaborations between artists and curators. These may be studio visits, informal discussions, semi-public programs, or exhibitions and projects arranged quickly, without the belatedness of museums. The tempo of residencies can be brisk or it may be much slower, and non-productivity is sanctioned by most residency institutions.
In my introduction to the mentioned Ludlow 38/ISCP panel discussion that took place at the Goethe-Institut New York on May 2, 2011, I presented a typology of curatorial residencies as follows: proposal-based residencies—curators are invited to carry out an exhibition proposal often based on in situ research; collaborative residencies—curators who usually work in different places come together within a residency to work on a joint project; retreat residencies—curators take time out from constant production; guest curator residencies—curators are responsible for the institution’s program over a set period of time; and residency as training ground—an emerging curator works alongside an institution’s curator, often similar to a fellowship. To this I would add research-based residencies—a group of curators or artists and curators gather to produce research and knowledge on specific subjects, and fieldwork residencies—curators are invited with the expectation that they immerse themselves in the local art scene (these are often vital initiatives in smaller places without extensive arts infrastructure).
Taking these models into account, the Ludlow 38 residency was seemingly a hybrid of a guest curator and a fieldwork residency: it gave an entire institution—one embedded within the larger structure of the Goethe-Institut—over to a curatorial resident from Germany for an entire year. The “guest” constantly renewed Ludlow 38’s institutional perspective, bringing fresh air to its program and contemporary art in New York City. In many residencies, artist or curator guests shape the public programming to a moderate degree through projects, events, open studios, and so on. The Ludlow 38 model fully realized the idea of the resident-driven institution—the curatorial residents determined its entire artistic program. As a new resident arrived each year without the expectation to continue their predecessor’s efforts, and with the expectation to cultivate their own audiences and community, Ludlow 38 was a malleable platform to realize projects that likely could not have taken place elsewhere.
As most residencies exist beyond institutional confines, the host city/town/village can be a significant part of the resident’s experience, and offers influences and resources. This is especially true for curatorial residencies, as curators tend to engage extensively in the host location’s art scene. Certainly, the heady influx of energy and people in the Lower East Side and Chinatown wove its way into the fabric of Ludlow 38, generating programming and audiences. Exhibitions and events such as H.E.N.S. at Unique Hair Stylists (2011), Saâdane Afif, L’S BELLS—The Busker of the Gray Line (2012) and Transformella—Institute for Reproductive Futures (2014) even took place in public space around the city. In the context of Ludlow 38, the Lower East Side and New York City were sites of production and a structure to maneuver within, affording both planned and chance encounters. With the backing of the German government and its post-national outlook, Ludlow 38 was simultaneously a global institution and decidedly local—a public institution occupying a street-level space in a not-fully-gentrified6 area of New York City. Ludlow 38 existed squarely in the lineage of downtown New York City alternative spaces, with its focus on artists, experimentation, and do-it-yourself spontaneity, even though it was a government-supported cultural institute. In my view, no other cultural state-initiative in New York City has ever captured the spirit of the alternative space so forcefully or unpacked the fullest potential of a curatorial residency.
New York City hosted the Goethe-Institut, the Goethe-Institut hosted Ludlow 38, and Ludlow 38 hosted each year-long resident. The curatorial residents then hosted the numerous artists, scholars, and audiences who engaged with their program, breaking from the common model of local host /foreign guest. And in the case of Keren Cytter Presents: The Last Summer Fest, the invited artist hosted numerous other artists during a three-day festival. From the outside, the relationship between the host and guest is usually the least visible residency component, although the ethos of all residencies is that of radical hospitality. The residency opens its “home” to the resident, aiming to build a collaboration that is mutually beneficial. A residency relies on the curator or artist/guest to contribute to its community by sharing ideas and work, while acting as an ambassador for the residency in the outside world. In return, the resident trusts that their work will be supported through access to space, material and artistic resources, new collaborations, and (usually) funding. It’s a reciprocal relationship that evolves over time, with dependence and responsibility at its core, and, at its best, friendship.
Institutional curators—and independent curators in specific situations—are the hosts to artists and constituents in their museums and art spaces. Curatorial residents are hosted and their relationship to the institution is transient. This “alien” relationship to the institution produces an unorthodox dynamic. The institutional affiliation is shorter, and due to time constraints, it often has a heightened sense of urgency. Being an “alien” curator can be destabilizing; one must learn the structure and possibilities of the residency very quickly.
Temporary curator alignments with institutions are on the rise. In addition to residencies, this para-institutional role is also prevalent in biennials and festivals. Long-established institutions have increasingly realized the benefits of short-term curatorial contributions to their programs, as this opens up the conventional approach. Within the modernist art historical paradigm, in order to develop a research program, one has to possess a healthy dose of critical distance away from the subject matter and commit to it for a longer period of time. The outcomes are often scholarly, and this mode of production is well-suited for a curator who works for a traditional art museum. However, with its dematerialized forms, geo-cultural dislocations and transient nature, contemporary art requires a different mode of thinking and research, which I would like to call “critical intimacy,” after a term from scholar Gayatri Spivak.
Reading a text requires us to be in it, live with it, and engage with its minute details. For a close reading, “you speak from inside,” Spivak points out. Similarly, contemporary art requires us to see from inside, often literally. In order to experience an artwork, you need to be in an installation, as opposed to looking at it. Contemporary art is participatory on many levels; a curator cannot be critically distant but she needs to be critically intimate, to develop new ties to larger intellectual frameworks.
Curatorial residencies provide opportunities for new forms of critical intimacies. In fact, while distancing from a familiar context in order to get intimate with an unfamiliar locality, curators question their own intellectual assumptions and blind spots. Resident curators do not typically represent the host institution and therefore have more freedom to get closer to artistic processes. Within the context of a residency, curatorial research and experimentation, as well as close proximity to artists via studio visits and conversations, are privileged over the administrative and financial implications of being affiliated with an institution. Moreover, residencies generally expect curators to become active participants in the residency’s community, if not to help in producing that community. Through being an active participant, the curator gains intimacy with subject matter and partakes in dynamic knowledge production during and, in many cases, after the residency.
Most of the curatorial residents at Ludlow 38 conceived part of their programs only once they were on the “inside” (for example, Nina Tabassomi’s Leah Dixon—A Pirate’s Meal and Saim Demircan’s The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress). These collaborations were forged through research and intense social encounters in New York City. As a year-long program specifically supporting an emerging generation of curators as well as artists, Ludlow 38 not only said a clear “yes” to their residents, but also set everything in place for critical intimacy to emerge in everyday practice.