Artistic residencies in relation to local communities – political instrumentalisation or yet unrealized possibilities? By Joanna Sandell

When residencies from the Nordic and Baltic region came together for network meetings during the fall of 2011 the vulnerable position of the artistic residency became obvious as the topics of the meetings all focused on what residencies has to offer a broader public.


The reactions from the residencies gathered in Helsinki for a Nordic Culture Point circle meeting in late September were as diverse as the residencies themselves. Among the residencies were international contemporary art residencies, as well as residencies focused on music, literature or dance. Some professionals cried out in range when a workshop about how to be responsible in terms of relationships with local communities was announced, and simply told the other participants that no pressure what so ever should be put on artists in order to get them to work with for local citizens. The scene became fitting for an Artur Zmijewski piece as an older man from a composers’ residency shook with range, and younger art professionals tried to mediate.  “The benefits come later when a play is written and put up, or a musical composition is played for an audience”, the residency manager and former composer concluded. Others, such as myself, wanted to discuss the possibilities of giving artists with a will to make a change the true potential and support to do so. The question is of course, as so often, who is in power, and who gets to make the calls?


A difference between rural and urban residencies also emerged, both during the Nordic Culture Point meetings and during a Baltic Circle Festival symposium in Helsinki in November organized by Martina Marti from On the Move, an agency that aims to facilitate cross-border mobility within the arts and culture sector in Europe. Residencies in small communities on the countryside are most often in need of a good relationship with their neighbors since artists often ask for participants in everything from experimental performance works to documentary films about the site for the residency. This is obviously the case in a remote village in Iceland, where the population as a whole is around 200 persons.  A substantial number art professionals came to the conclusion that at times it is better to pay someone for participating in an artwork rather than trying to convince a local villager to act in yet another experimental art video. 


Jesper de Neergaard, artistic director of Bora Bora, a dance and visual theatre in Denmark, shared his view on a good relationship with a local audience by giving seminar participants of Baltic Circle Festival in Helsinki a list of good advice;
1. Remember that professionalism is an urban mindset not aimed at rural thinking.
2. Most people want to be regarded as sophisticated consumers of culture, how can you use this knowledge?
3. Contact somebody that knows everyone and would want almost the same results as you. 
4. Make things understandable, be sure to exchange!
5. Surprise them!
6. Do not convert anybody, but listen and make your point, this is part of inclusion.
7. Be generous.

During the Nordic Culture Point lectures series “Residencies in context” researcher Ola K Berge stressed that quality standards of both local and global artistic work must be the same. Berge wanted to evaluate the success of residencies by their ability to bridge professionals and amateurs, and by how well they can combine artistic quality with local relevance. Berge also pinpointed the wish by policy makers to frame arts professionals and cultural workers, and asked the audience of art professionals at the seminar to carefully think through the role of the artist in the new pragmatic welfare society where public funding is getting less affluent. 

Jonas Ekeberg, Editor-in-chief of, was perhaps the most polemic speaker of the HIAP Talks,  held after the Nordic Culture Point lectures, when he concluded that the art world has become a refuge for researchers, philosophers, critics and political thinkers alike, pushing thinkers into the marginalized art world, a safe distance from where the true decisions about our common future are being taken. So should we ask to be left alone in the safe haven of the cultural world or are the current pressures of evaluation and local relevancy a blessing in disguise?


Managers of artistic residencies and art professionals alike will certainly not be free from the pressures of instrumentalisation in the future, the question is whether we can meet these challenges on the artists’ and ultimately, on our own, terms? We will be asked to become bridgemakers, so why not mediate wisely when artists are asked to fulfill goals such diverse as consultancy in terms of city development or even social work. The work should definitely be paid and its outcomes not waivered on in terms of artistic quality. Or as Tom Waits puts in a song on the album “Goin out west”; “I’m gonna do what I want and I’m gonna get paid!”


About the author:

Joanna Sandell, Director Botkyrka konsthall and founder of Residence Botkyrka, a publicly funded international residency program for contemporary art in the municipality of Botkyrka, a part of the larger Stockholm area.


This article refers to following seminars:

”Go West – gold digging or artistic necessity”, Jesper de Neergaard, Artistic Director Bora Bora, Denmark, Seminar: Touring in Scandinavia and the Baltics 17.11 2011


”Residencies in context” a workshop during Residence Circle Meeting of residencies from the Nordic/Baltic region receiving funding form Nordic Culture Point, the funding body of The Nordic Ministry of Culture, 21-22 September 2011

Held in Helsinki, Finland.

Lecture: Ola K Berge, researcher on culture, ”How to evaluate”, 21 September 2011.
Workshop 1: Ptarmigan & Moks, ”Residencies and the participation with the local community”, 21 September, 2011.


HIAP TALKS: ”The Politics of Residency Programming” with Editor-in-Chief Jonas Ekeberg,; Artistic Director Stine Herbert, Baltic Art Center; Acting Director Anders Härm, Tallinn Art Hall; curator Johan Lundh. 

Curated by Marita Muukkonen, HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme, 22 September 2011.