Reflections after 2 years and 40 artists

Most of the content of this website was generated in the first year of the residency when I was still worried at times that no one would come! While the motivations and focus of the residency haven't changed, I have learnt a lot and been given so much more than I expected which I would like to share with you.

No application forms?!

Much of the advice I received when I started pondering the format of the residency centred around how to attract 'the best artists'. It was implied that I should seek the knowledge and support of experts, ask museum directors to select residents for me, have stringent application criteria. I found this off putting because they were all criteria that would have excluded me as an applicant: as a recent graduate, I wasn't on anyone's radar or in any important networks, on paper I looked old, saddled with children and previous non-art careers, with a portfolio still very much in flux. And I detest writing about my work. Yet I am passionate about my practice and absolutely believe that I would be the best person for any residency, thank you very much.

My tutor Garry Woodley, ever the anarchist, suggested I have no application forms and advertise solely by word-of-mouth. I thought this was also a bit unfair as you would have to be 'in' to ever hear about this. But he pointed out that formal adverts for other residencies aren't posted on the Clapham Omnibus anyway: you have to subscribe to the newsletters, buy the magazines and you tend to do this on the recommendation of your peers.

And it turns out the advantages are many. There are no application deadlines and I have no piles of applications to deal with. An expression of interest is dealt with instantly: either there is space or there isn't. When people come, it isn't because I have selected them and so I haven't made any promises that this residency is particularly suited to their practice. Instead the responsibility is entirely the residents to decide that this is a good use of their time. As such, I place a immense amount of trust on the artists, and they have always risen to that challenge. To this end, I post as much as I can on the website about the facilities and encourage every artist who comes to share their experiences in a way that is helpful to future residents, through a blog entry of their own.

A productive time

Artists aren't tempted to outbid each other with outlandish claims of what they hope to achieve in advance of even getting here but can stay open minded about how best to use their time. I believe this is the main reason that every artist who has come has left with comments about how they have never been this productive before. Because they get to enjoy absolute artistic freedom while they are here which is the ultimate commodity I could possibly offer them. Some people decide to put on a full solo show, others take the opportunity to go right back to a point where the emphasis is on experimentation and failure rather than finished work. But what suits them is never dictated by external pressures, only by the desires of the artists themselves.

This means the residency with its very minimal administrative framework generates huge value added for a very wide range of artists. Other residencies put a lot of effort into selecting the most experienced capable artists who of course generate very good polished shows in the allotted time. At Trelex, artists invariably surprise themselves with what they manage to achieve because the residency trusts them entirely to work at their own pace.

And of course, a very significant selection bias occurs. Now that word of the residency has spread far and wide, it is more often than not booked up a good 6 months in advance. Thus, to come, an prospective artist has to be committed enough to buy a plane or train ticket very far in advance and feel sure that even in half a year's time, this is still what they will most want to do. This means they tend to research this rather carefully, and ask me a lot of questions. And often they come because someone else has chosen to tell them what a fantastic time they had. A good institution is not one able to select artists that are already brilliant (how do you define that anyway?) but one that is able to create value added for the artists it hosts.

Invariably this also tends to select for artists willing to take a risk, with a can-do attitude and a high level of independence, and those truly committed to their practice rather than to a commercial career (where 'star residencies'  are preferred on the CV), all of which makes it very easy for me to welcome them and very enjoyable!

A generous network

Artists also take the risk of sharing the studio with two strangers, one of which is me! On the website -which I insist applicants read through! - I strongly suggest that if they are not interested in exchange and discussion, in questioning their work and that of others, they might not enjoy being here very much. Again, I have felt humbled by the generosity in this respect of all who have come. I guess there is some risk in inviting complete strangers to share my studio but in the end these complete strangers are taking exactly the same risk as me, perhaps a bigger one as they travel away from friends and family and often don't speak French. And so a very strong bond develops whenever the experience, invariably, turns out to be a positive one.

Facebook has undoubtedly played a big role in getting to know each other, in spreading word about the residency and in staying in touch. It is particularly gratifying when I am able to put two artists in touch who have both been here, have a lot in common but might otherwise never have met. It seems that there are many possible shows that will come out of the residency and the success of it has also given me huge confidence in chasing opportunities for the residents, for myself and for the residency quite aggressively. I find it far easier to ask for support for others, than I do for myself and so the network grows to encompass local artists, arts professionals, craftspeople, gallerists that I would not have had the confidence to contact solely on the basis of my own emerging practice. As such I think it is well worthwhile for other young or emerging artists to think very specifically about what they can give and share to build such a network of their own and benefit from the generosity of strangers in return.

On a very personal level, I feel that the residency has kept my practice in a questioning mode, surrounded by the vibrancy and intellectual curiosity that I so treasured at Art school. It has also made me increasingly confident about my own ability to mentor younger artists and support even more established artists as I am continuously able to test my ideas about artists process, development and progress.

A model that can be replicated?

At this point, I am actively looking for partners to expand this no-application model of residency. This could be private individuals (artists or not) with even just a spare room where artists would have a chance to get away from their usual surroundings and take a fresh look at their practice in which case all you would need is a good room and working space which you can commit even just for 2 weeks a year. Or it could be with established residencies or other institutions excited about a different experiment in which case they might decide to open up a small part of their facilities on a first-come, first served basis for again even just a couple of weeks a year. In return, I feel able now to promise that they will give an artist an extremely productive time and that they might be very surprised by what comes out of it. And I don't think you need to be an art professional already for this to be a very interesting experience. Just be curious.