Strategies for Becoming an AIR

My artist talk (see previous post) met with a lot of enthusiasm and interest in how to become an Artist in Residence.  I thought it would make sense to post my suggestions here, so they are accessible to all who are interested.  As I get feedback from all of you, I'll update and correct this post so it will evolve to be even more helpful.

There are different considerations for applying to an existing AIR program, and proposing to create a new one.  First, here are some general strategies when applying to existing programs.

1.  Know the place and/or entity that you're applying to.  You'll know a lot more when you're done with your residency, but it's important to have some depth of knowledge beforehand (so that you know what you're getting into and are sure you want to go ahead with it). 

2.  Be sure to carefully read the description in the application materials--how THEY see the residency--and consider how your work fits the venue and the program.  Address every point very clearly when you write your statement of purpose, answer every question they've posed.  Think deeply about what you want to say with your artwork. 

3.  Submit your portfolio in exactly the format that they request.  For example, if they want a digital format, make sure to note the dimensions and medium that they want.  Don't send color slides if they want a CD, and vice versa. Always choose your strongest and most relevant work, and don't dilute it by unnecessarily increasing the quantity or diversity of the images.  More is not usually better, and may only show lack of focus.

4.  Make sure that you understand the terms of the residency up front.  What is included, in terms of housing and workspace?  What opportunities will you have to show your work, what percentage of sales do they keep, and are you obligated to donate a piece?  Do they want you to give talks, workshops and demos, or just work and not interact with visitors?  These are just the basics.

5.  Follow up.  Some places (like National Parks) don't always run like clockwork.  Things aren't on a hard and fast schedule, so if some time goes by without hearing back, check in with your contact person.  It's okay to take some initiative, within reason.

Now, on to my advice for you hardy trailblazing souls who want to propose (and help create) a new program where there is none.

1.  If you have a prospective host in mind, find any similar park, company, facility, museum or institute which already has an artist program of some kind, and (if it's successful) hold this up as an example to help show the potential for success.  This will help them to envision how such a program might work in their context, and can provide a framework for your mutual efforts in this new endeavor.
Conversely, if you don't have a place in mind yet, learning about existing programs elsewhere can help you envision a residency at a similar venue in your own community.  Start here.  The example I used in my talk can be found by clicking "Pacific" and scrolling down to Norcal Sanitary Landfill.  Yep, it's a dump in the Bay Area, and they have a very successful, longstanding AIR program.  Are there any landfills in your community that have AIR programs?  Maybe not, but maybe they should!  How about museums?  Know any in your area that have AIR's?  If not, maybe they should.  A listing like this can give you ideas and inspiration for programs elsewhere in the country that you can initiate locally, and can also show a prospective host that such a program can work very well.  Google "artist residencies" or similar keywords to get even more listings. 

2.  Think long and hard about why you want to do a residency for your chosen entity, so you can communicate that clearly.  Do your research, because having a depth of knowledge will show them that you know what you're getting into and have thought it through.  That will increase their faith in your judgment, and will indicate to them that you're a "self-starter" who isn't going to be high-maintenance. 

3.  Once you've picked a target and done your research, put together a proposal.  My first contact with Cabrillo was via email, with a brief description of what I had in mind, and four or five images of my work attached to the email.  I followed this up with a printed proposal, resume and portfolio sent by regular mail. You can try email if you have contact information for a person who might be interested.  In a National Park, that is the ranger in charge of  Interpretation and Education.  In a different setting, you might be looking for Public Relations, Community Outreach, Publicity, etc. Do they already have a Volunteer Program of some sort?  Perhaps a new AIR program could be part of that.

Include some images that represent your work.  Pick just a few of your very best and most relevant works. And, make those images immediately visible.  Not on a CD, not even a link that they have to click on.  If you make initial contact by email, attach or better yet embed some images of your work in the body of the email. When you follow up by regular mail, include printed color photocopies of your work.  If there's even one additional step required for them to see your work, like putting a CD into a computer or even opening a physical folder, it may never be seen.  Remember, they didn't ask for this submission.  You want to make it as easy as possible for them to see it instead of putting it in the "circular file".

4.  In your proposal, make your motivations clear.  Ideally, this will be along the lines of giving something back to a place that has meaning for you, enabling others to see the place as you do, community outreach on their behalf, etc.  Your motivation is not prestige, self-promotion or selling work.  Even if it really is. 

5.  It is important to keep a mindset of flexibility and willingness to adapt and improvise.  Especially if you're starting a program from scratch, let your prospective hosts know that you're prepared to do the work to establish the program, and you're not expecting monetary or personnel support (most places do not have the budget to provide materials or facilities for something like this).  By excusing them from financial obligation, you've taken away one of their reasons to say "no."  After all, you are going to gain a lot from this experience.  You'll grow as an artist, you'll have an impressive line on your resume, and you may very well sell a lot of work.  Your host will benefit from your artistic representation (there is just no better form of  PR), and if they take a percentage of your sales, they stand to benefit financially too.  It's really a win-win.

6. Don't give up if there is initial resistance.  If there is even one person who sees this as a good idea and believes that it can work, perhaps all it will take is some gentle persuasion to push it through. In my case, it took several months to get approval; but because there was one ranger who saw the value and potential for a program like this, and because he was relentless, it became a reality.

If anyone has thoughts or feedback about this, email me and I'll update this post--so keep checking back!