This essay was published first in the ARCAthens newsletter in May of 2020 at the height of the pandemic in New York. It was in June released on the Res Artis website at https://resartis.org/res-artis-news/
On March 11, my partner and I flew from our home in Philadelphia to Santa Fe, New Mexico to see a retrospective exhibition of an artist we admire. Several years ago, I sponsored him to be in residence at a wonderful artist residency center in Carlisle, United Kingdom, where he made some beautiful work. A few of these pieces were in the exhibition. We were lucky to see the show before the art center hosting it abruptly closed on March 13, shuttered by order of the Governor of New Mexico as word of the pandemic spread. On March 16th we caught a half empty plane out of the Albuquerque airport, and came home to what felt like a ghost town. In just five days the United States had been quarantined and life as we knew it was suddenly and irrevocably altered. Driving home from the airport the streets were desolate, restaurants closed, stores boarded up. It presaged more of what was to come, and is still unfolding.
Since the 1990s I have been deeply involved with the field of artist residencies and creative communities. For the past two years, I have been the Artist Residency Advisor for ARCAthens. Along with Executive Director Aristides Logothetis and a dedicated Board of Directors and volunteers, we have worked hard to grow our emerging organization into a vital new residency program. As the pandemic is breaking like a tsunami on the shores of every country, we are concerned that we are about to see all our hard work washed away. Much of the entire field of international artist residency centers feels a great wave of uncertainty. The pandemic has upended the work of thirty years overnight, postponing if not cancelling the expected future for many in the arts. The pandemic is affecting everyone, in every aspect of life, many disproportionately and unjustly. There are terrible food and health care shortages and dangerous economic and social dislocations occurring.
Artist residency centers make up an informal international network serving tens of thousands of creative people and an enormous public. They are places where artists and creators of all disciplines can go to work on their art: painters, playwrights, filmmakers, fiction writers, composers, curators, social scientists, anthropologists, chefs, choreographers, printmakers, poets, sculptors, scholars, songwriters, and more. Residency centers are research-and-development labs for the creative arts, providing artists and scholars with time, space, and support for the creation of new work and the exploration of new ideas. They are activated spaces that reach out to the communities around them providing a range of educational, presenting, and participatory experiences they otherwise may not experience. Very often, residencies are the only source for the free flow of information in societies where information is restricted. We rely on artists and creators to ask the most innovative questions and to offer solutions to solve some of our most pressing social and spiritual challenges. It is at residencies where these questions and solutions are formulated for the common good.
In the weeks since March 16th I have been on zoom teleconferences with artists and arts administrators at the Global Art Forum in Dubai, and representatives from residency centers in United States through the Alliance of Artist Communities. We have been discussing what is happening and how people are responding. As the economy in the United States falters, it is apparent that the sources for the arts that were supporting the nonprofit system, including the residency field, is contracting badly. While there are emergency funds and efforts to keep staff and talent afloat, these are short-term only. For example, the American Alliance of Museums this March predicted that in the next year 30% of all museums will not reopen. A similar percentage of small and midsized nonprofit organizations including residency centers, theatres, dance companies, galleries, and community art centers may close as well. What has become clear to me is that in the current atmosphere of simply trying to survive, larger organizations with resources will weather this better, while the smaller will have a lesser chance. The Center for an Urban Future released a report on April 20 that goes into great detail about how this looks in New York. As ARCAthens Board President George Negroponte succinctly summed up in an email to me when I shared the article with him, “This is scary stuff.”
After saying all this, here is the most important thing I feel I can share. It is our values-based argument for why every time I hear about how bad things are becoming, I also see an artist or an arts organization doing something unique and wonderful to mitigate the bad news, nimbly adjusting, and moving forward. It is because what we do, working in the arts, is done for Love. We have passion for ideas, deep feelings about optimism, belief in humankind and our potential for good, for healing, for aspiring to do our best, for kindness and empathy. We take care of each other and ask for nothing in return. Love is an all-encompassing word. It is at the heart of communities coming together. Artist residencies are creative communities. This critical moment is reminding us we need community and each other more than ever before.
This is the essence of what we do at ARCAthens. We give Fellowships to artists and curators, let them do their work, support them, and ask nothing in return except to please, be generous with the public they engage with. We have always found that the artists we work with are incredibly generous and giving when invited to share what they do with our public. While the arts infrastructure around us in the Bronx and Athens may be in crisis, while many institutions falter and colleagues lose their livelihoods, we too have had to take stock and make major adjustments at ARCAthens. All around us people are seeking ways to make things work. That is our ethos, too.
Many artist residency centers have had to cancel or postpone their residency sessions this year, and we are no different. Our session in Athens for fall 2020 is on hold, waiting to see what happens with travel and if there is a second wave of the pandemic. We may have to reschedule to a future date, but it will happen. Many organizations in the arts have turned to the Internet to provide on-line content in the absence of physical programming. In this way, we too are no different. We are implementing a virtual residency program that fits our mission to build cultural bridges between Athens and the Bronx. We will be connecting artists in both cities with curators, actively linking them and their work, and continuing to support them financially. It is a unique residency program and one of the few of its kind so far. Hopefully it will be a model for others. We will be doing much of this work on a part time or volunteer basis as we work to raise the financial support to keep ARCAthens moving forward. We believe in paying our staff as well as our artists. We are going to find the funds with our supporter’s help, but also hopefully from a new community we attract through our programming.
One thing that will be extremely important as the residency field goes forward is whether the arts community as a whole can change systemically. To be sustainable, it cannot return to the way it used to do things. The pandemic exposed inequities and weaknesses in arts support in the United States, especially the funding models that left so many vulnerable as mentioned in the Center for An Urban Future article. Innovation and new ideas typically take shape through the research and development fostered in the small to mid sized organizations, which ARCAthens is one of. These are the organizations that are the most threatened right now, and are having the hardest time finding funding, including government stimulus money that is closed off to many of them. The point I am making here is that I have found that as a small arts organization ARCAthens has to work harder to convince the entire philanthropic community that it is critical to the arts ecology going forward. We have to build our audience and bring them in to our mission, find meaningful ways for them to participate with us, so that when the arts economy realigns our constituency feels it was important that we survived the pandemic.
If the response to the pandemic for ARCAthens is one of Love, and our motivation is to keep on working and to be part of larger positive changes that improve the current equation, then we will stay on mission and act from a values-based proposition. It is unbelievably important that the voices of artists and small arts organizations be heard and counted in the coming days to shape new arts policy and its implementation. We can do this through our work, and being successful at it. ARCAthens was founded to provide direct support to artists and curators, essentially by building a cultural bridge between Athens and the Bronx. This is ARCAthens time to rise to the formidable challenges ahead, with its own innovative ideas and solutions, and be part of the conversation. I believe in its response, with love in a time of pandemic, it is doing just that.