Things to ask yourself before you apply for an artist residency

The support of an artist residency goes far beyond utility bills. And yields in the intangible form of the lifetime ripple effect on the artist when someone truly believes and sees the cultural and/or artistic value in their work.

I experienced (and continue to experience) the trickle down effect from my time at the Rimbun Dahan artist residency in Kuang, Selangor, a living seed bank 30 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur. The generosity, safety and shared confidence I felt in the arboretum continues to seep into the crevices of my evolving worldview and day-to-day for my main body of work, an independent food culture publication called Plates. Rimbun Dahan played a crucial role in supporting my ability to produce Plates, Vol.4: Seeds as we went into lockdown (again) in October 2020.

It’s not a holiday
An artist residency is not a holiday. Though it may look like it to those who are not doing the work; the ones jeering outside of the arena, who are also ironically the first ones to ask you for a copy of your work … for free.

For the naysayers, and likely those who have never considered the idea of truly supporting a residency or an independent artist, it's easy to dismiss and even patronise the concept. “Gee, you're being paid to go on holiday?” Or the classic, “Right, you’re [gestures air quotes] working,” drawl.

Instead, a residency is an invaluable incubation space to stretch, think and, ideally, create. And, if you’re really lucky, in the company of like-hearted fellow artists to exchange ideas over shared plates and spaces.

These are a few questions I’ve reflected on that you may want to consider asking yourself before starting an application:

Why do I need this specific space at this specific time?
Don't apply for a residency just because it's available. Similar to applying for a grant, you shouldn’t force a project pitch to fit a residency’s criteria. It's not only disrespectful to the host, who may now think twice before supporting someone who might pitch something similar in the future, but to the arts community as well as the individual, who truly would have benefited from your spot. Ultimately, forcing yourself to work on a project you never wanted to start in the first place is a disservice to your art and mental well-being.

Arts residency Rimbun Dahan ©Tan Dee May

Dee May at work in Rumah Balai credit Rimbun Dahan

What are my working, living and social expectations of the residency – and does it match theirs?
Do you need high-speed Internet or a studio space? What about access to grocery stores or clinics? Is it a shared living space? Don’t assume everything will be provided for you.

Check in with yourself. Are you able to work autonomously or are you an extrovert that needs constant social interaction? If you work better in solitude, can you handle the expectation to participate in in-house events?

What is my focus of the residency?
Some residencies don’t require you to produce a deliverable by the end of your stay. Even so, you must be very clear about what it is that you’re exploring and why being in that space is instrumental to your artistic development. It may be tempting to pitch a roster of deliverables to achieve during the residency. But just like packing for a trip, go over that suitcase and cut out half of it. Be very clear about what you intend to work on.

Have I thoroughly combed through the application criteria?
Are you required to give a percentage of your artworks to the organiser? What are the copyright terms for the works you produce while in residency? Are any fees required? Clarify these beforehand – ideally before you begin your application to save yourself time and opportunity cost.

Comb through their website and look up any interviews done by the organisers. Chances are your questions would’ve been answered elsewhere. Otherwise, get in touch with the host well ahead of the application deadline. Be mindful of their contact policy (e.g. no phone calls; do not harass them if you don’t receive a response within the week; or chase the wrong contact person.) Be respectful of their time. The organiser is probably running a million other things alongside their open call. ResArtis is a useful starting point to explore available residencies around the world.

I’ve attended FAQ sessions by residencies. What I found most off-putting is when potential applicants are already making demands, such as asking for a specific room with a specific view, which is a fair ask – if you're paying for the residency. Not when you're a sponsored guest.

That being said, when you’re applying for a residency, make sure to do sufficient background checks on the organisation’s credibility for obvious safety and security reasons. If available, look up testimonials by former residents. Do not ask past residents for a copy of their application. It is not only intrusively rude and lazy, but because of the diversity of work, their answers are unlikely to apply to you.

Live sketching rumah kampung arts-residency Rimbun Dahan © Tan Dee May

Plates Magazine work-in-progress arts-residency Rimbun Dahan ©Tan Dee May

Rumah-Balai photoshoot dipterocarp arts-residency Rimbun Dahan ©Tan Dee May

How can I contribute to the residency’s landscape?
Basic courtesy of being a good neighbour or dorm mate should go without saying. When you are an artist-in-residence, you are a guest and an ambassador of your craft and the community you represent. What will you bring to the community as a person?

And finally: What if they say ‘no’?
In early 2020, I was awarded a space at Can Serrat, an artist residency in Montserrat, Spain, to work on Plates Magazine. Many emails and a Zoom call later, and now with the new Omicron variant looming, I can only hope that I will be able to take up my residency within the coming year.

Thus, don’t plan around a residency just yet. Especially with the volatility of border closures. Check their rescheduling and/or refund policy, pandemic SOP and quarantine duration.

If you didn’t get selected the first, second, or fifth time, don’t take it personally; and don’t assume the rejection is a reflection of your work or yourself as a person. Like any unsuccessful job interview, consider asking for constructive feedback about your application. Note some spaces do have the capacity to provide feedback while others don’t and would’ve stated this in advance.

But most of all, keep at it. Keep trying. The worst thing that can happen is they say, no.

Tan Dee May is the founder of Plates, a biannual print publication that uses food as a conversation starter for meatier issues. Tan is a recipient of multiple awards, including the international Chevening Award (2016); the national INXO Arts Fund Award (2019); the international Can Serrat Writers Residency (Montserrat, Spain, 2020/2021); and The Ideas Festival documentary award (Brisbane, Australia, 2011). Tan was a resident artist at Rimbun Dahan as part of its Southeast Asian Arts Residency programme in 2021. You can learn more about her at the links below:

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