Residencies and Reality: Bad Business in the Visual Arts

Incremental changes over time, together with the latest de-funding of the Australia Council, have seen the international residency program begun by the inaugural Director of the Visual Arts Board (recently disbanded), Leon Paroissien, effectively destroyed.

To those outside the art world, at a time when costs are examined and margins shaved, when visual artists struggle for space and materials to work with at home, the new Australian Council for the Arts International Residencies Program announced last September, a program that provides travel to and studio space in two major capital cities, might seem a luxury. But the program, one of the most cost-effective uses of Australian Council for the Arts funds, has been cut to pieces.

We all know that the Australia Council, like all government-funded instrumentalities, must budget wisely and increase both productivity and market engagement. Funding is investment. An investment in international residencies allows an artist to make work, expand his or her reputation and to connect with an international market. Sales make an artist independent of funding. A strategy with this effect is surely the best use of Australia Council funds.

An international residency gives an artist time, space and material support. It also offers professional development by exposure to original historic and contemporary art and enables artists to network in a new market. For many artists a residency is a great confidence builder. It is also a place where many lifelong professional relationships are formed. The artist has time to produce work of a scale larger than a suitcase. Dealers, critics, curators and colleagues can spend time with the work over coffee or a drink in the studio, observing it in three dimensions, instead of guessing at images on a computer.

Denizens of the artworld take for granted its systems for connecting the social and economic realities of being an artist, but it is worth articulating them here. An artist produces work for sale. Even those such as Nike Savvas, who works mostly in installation, or, like Stelarc, or Arthur Wicks, focus on performance will also sell prints or drawings, or the documentation of their work, through photographs or videos. For this, they need to network to find the right dealer, and to establish a reputation in the new artworld. So when an artist arrives in a new city, the crucial element is connection.

In 2008, soon after I took up my role at the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, I received an email from the New York Greene Street Studio Manager, Kathy Morano. The image attached to this email showed her rugged up on a snow-caked Greene Street, with open arms. She sent a warm message for my new role and the New Year. Morano welcomed each artist granted the studio with the same warmth. Robert Besanko told me that Morano created a safe residence for him in New York with the confidence of a lifetime resident.

Besanko was in 1979 one of the first artists to be granted a residency at the newly established Australia Council Greene Street Studio. The residency helped his career by creating a momentum to his work. On the announcement of his Greene Street residency, the Centre Pompidou curators in Paris agreed to present the 1981 solo exhibition Robert Besanko and Australian Photography Today. The Pompidou acquired 12 of his Orthochromatic Kodalith photographs from this exhibition.

If the first 37 years of the Australia Council Visual Arts residencies were about the importance of face-to-face contact with international arts institutions and professionals then the next 37 years should do the same and more, to counteract the digital era. Greater electronic accessibility to an artist’s image doesn’t necessarily translate to sales or acquisitions of an artist’s work. What does affect an artist’s career is international curators’ relationships with Australian artists; international collectors’ relationships with Australians artists; the artists’ and their galleries’ international networks. These influences are often interrelated. Many opportunities for such relationships have occurred as a direct result of the authentic face-to-face experience provided by Australia Council international residency programs.

In 1981 William Wright left the management of Greene Street to return to Sydney as Artistic Director of the 1982 Biennale of Sydney, and the artist Michael Johnson moved into Greene Street. In August this year Annette Larkin Fine Art curated a survey exhibition of Johnson’s works from 1980 to 1986 entitled Diagonal Light. Amongst the 16 works on canvas and paper, one gouache on paper, ‘Greene Street, NYC, 1981’, was a standout. According to Anna Johnson in an interview with her father in July 2015, this painting, made in the Greene Street Studio, denoted a transition: the confined palette in New York opened as he moved from New York to North Queensland and to Sydney, as he says, to the “raw Southern hemisphere light and much larger work spaces”.

In 2012, in a carefully researched and curated exhibition, Colour and Light, Helen Eager collaborated with her gallery Utopia Art Sydney to consider the critical transformation Greene Street had on her practice. Chloe Watson’s catalogue essay shows that Eager’s residency at the Greene Street Studio in 1988 signified a major change in her work. Before Greene Street, Eager’s subjects were mostly representational domestic interiors filled with pensive colour and light. At Greene Street her early representational works shifted in scale, whereby domestic objects like lamps or a chair became larger and larger until all the formal elements like colour, space and mass were reduced to geometric structures. These shifts suggest a back and forward movement between representation and abstraction.

The 16 works for Jon Campbell’s current exhibition were painted 24 years apart, during his two residencies at the Greene Street Studio. The show at Darren Knight’s Gallery offers an opportunity to examine the work from the first, in the context of work from 2015. ‘Fuck Yeah/Greene Street, 2015’, is painted in yellow-green directly onto the gallery wall upstairs, onto which are taped original drawings from 1991 and 2015. Five works – three hung downstairs and two upstairs – were made in 1991, when Campbell was 29. These older, figurative works form an interesting contrast with Campbell’s signature works made at age 53, at Greene Street at the beginning of this year.

Despite this history of achievement and effective use of public money, the Australia Council will close the Greene Street Studio in 2016. This sad end follows the closure or inclusion of other arts in seven other visual-arts-dedicated studios, including those in Barcelona, Paris, ISCP New York, Liverpool, Rome, Helsinki and Tokyo.

Courtesy the artists, Utopia Art Sydney, Darren Knight Gallery, William Wright Artists Projects and Annette Larkin Fine Art