Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Good or bad, rez prez helps boost the arts biz

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Rohan Wealleans has added Taiwan to his rez-prez list. Photo / APN
Rohan Wealleans has added Taiwan to his rez-prez list. Photo / APN

I once asked the winner of a rather lengthy artist residency if they were pleased with their prize.

Well yes, came the reply, but money would have been nicer. "I have a partner. I have a house and a mortgage," the winner wailed. Leaving all that behind - or trying to take it with them - was going to be tricky.

So why did they apply for the residency? Because these days it seems you're no one in the visual art or literary worlds until you've got rez-prez - residency-prestige. Kudos is everything in the creative industries.

From the institution's point of view, it's picturesque to have an artist around, like the hermit Thomasina draws into the garden plans in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia. And if you're a trust, gallery or university which is cash poor but rich in ramshackle real estate, then hey presto! You can still Support the Arts in a very visible way.

While you may need to provide a stipend, you can make your artist do stuff - teach perhaps, and/or immediately exhibit or publish what they've produced thanks to you.

I'm not suggesting residencies are a bad thing per se, just that their ubiquity means the industry favours artists by lifestyle, not art quality.

And indeed, the system assumes the loner artist archetype; the individual outsider who can leave their life and responsibilities at any time - and wants to do so.

What if they have children? Don't be silly; real artists don't have kids. They have mistresses, or perhaps paramours, who distract them, and they need a Virginia Woolfesque "room of one's own" away from it all, because they all live in garrets and have no studios (or jobs) to speak of.

Residencies are "moving prisons", says one poet-artist friend. "Ooh, let's give someone money and make them move away from all their support networks," she says sarcastically.

It's true the system does suit many artists not of this solitary description (some residencies allow artists to live elsewhere and work onsite). In the winter 2011 issue of Art News New Zealand, two very different types of residencies are described.

Expatriate artist Locust Jones - whose list of residencies includes India, the United States, Lebanon and Korea - talks of the "eerie silence" of a rural New South Wales residency, which "was a great opportunity to get stuck in and start a new project".

But Auckland artist Kim Meek found seeking out Taipei's inspiring architecture and antiquities left him little time in the studio during his Taiwan residency.

When he handed his guidebook to Rohan Wealleans - the next artist on the list - it was well-thumbed.

So Jones had a traditional, pastoral, artist-colony type residency, relatively close to home, while Meek's experience was residency as global, hyper-connected, art-making tourism, something which has really taken off since the 1990s.

If you want to do the latter, it pays to be a model citizen and have a good, first-world passport. This suits artists as professionals more than the artists as reprobates or society-challengers.

But for some rez-prez, good for business, it's worth the sacrifice.

* Janet McAllister is overseas; her column will return on August 27

- NZ Herald

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