Residency Unlimited

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Article | Nov 2010

Some notes on the production of resident alien artists. A conversation with Branko Franceschi.

By Edward Schexnayder

“What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?’

-Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children

Recently, I was asked to be part of a presentation by Residency Unlimited to a graduate arts administration class at New York University.  The class was researching funding options and strategies for non-profit arts organizations.  In this case, they were assessing art residency programs.  Towards the end of the class, a student asked what was a seemingly practical question, “How does one define a productive residency?”  I was struck dumb by the question, and, thankfully, it wasn’t addressed to me.   The question was essentially asking how would one evaluate and/or qualify a residency with the aim to make an effective request for support.  But I took it much more deeply, bordering on the existential.

As an artist, one’s productivity is always gauged by one’s art (or the lack there of, depending on where one falls on the sliding scale of things).  I can’t say I’ve ever thought the question.  But to evaluate a program meant to produce some sort of result, it is an immensely important one to ask.  Is a residency only about the art produced during the period?  Or is it much more abstract?  And what does “productive” mean for those involved?  As an artist, everything revolves around one’s art practice and the thinking, making, and exhibiting of that art.  But even though I have had the good fortune to be an artist-in-residence both internationally and locally, I had no real idea what those who administer these residencies would think on these questions.

In 2009, I was invited to Croatia through Art in General’s Eastern Europe Residency Exchange Program by the HDLU (Croatian Association of Visual Artists) to be an artist-in-residence by the then director, Branko Franceschi.  Along with the provocatively profound performance artist Narcissister, I spent several months in the Croatian capital city of Zagreb as well as traveling throughout Croatia.  While there, I learned of an interesting occurrence in Croatia’s cultural history.

In 1948, Yugoslavia was in a critical position regarding Stalin’s iron fisted hold on the Eastern Bloc countries.  Under President Tito, Yugoslavia had successfully evaded the USSR’s complete domination.   Under the threat of amassed Soviet and Hungarian forces on Yugoslavia’s northern borders, the Soviets were demanding that Yugoslavia make overtures of subservience to the USSR.  Tito refused and Yugoslavia was subsequently expelled from the Eastern Bloc.  This could have been the death knell for Yugoslavia, but in a largely unique coup of diplomatic mastery, Tito and his fellow Yugoslavians repelled the Soviets by courting favor with the West and simultaneously preserving Yugoslavia’s socialist and cultural ideals.  This was done, in part, through art.

In1951, Edo Murtic, a Croatian painter, went to the US.[i] Comparable to the allegations of the government’s involvement in supporting the arts in the US during the Cold War, it isn’t known how deep the Yugoslavian government influenced this visitation. [ii] They did approve his visit and wasn’t censored upon his return.  The eventual development of artistic styles based largely on US, Western European, and unofficial Soviet (Constructivism) influences was also never discouraged and was often encouraged by the state.  The reinvested attention to the US and Western Europe was certainly in the air for many Yugoslavians.

The social-realist school of art was the then dominant style in all of the communist and socialist countries.  In New York, Murtic saw a good deal of the blossoming American abstractionists and was quite impressed.  Upon his return, he exhibited several works in a traveling exhibition called “Impressions of America.”  These were landscapes and other works that were painted in a much looser fashion and began to abstract the subject matter in a manner similar to what he saw in New York.  Soon, he was painting in a brazenly abstract, lyrical style similar, though different in some degrees, to the so-called American Abstract Expressionists.  This style spread like wildfire amongst other artists in Yugoslavia and soon lyrical abstraction, arte informel, and other related styles were being taken up with fervor.

Similarly, artists like those engaged in the Exat 51 group aligned themselves with the geometric abstractionists more prevalent in Europe in 1951.[iii] A particularly interesting element is that all of these styles were adapted to their own context.  For example, where as abstract painting in the US at the time was being heralded as a unique, fully American strain of painting, in Yugoslavia it was being heralded as an essentially expressive style for socialist and equally nationalist ideals.  Yugoslavian art was in step and at times out strode most other Western countries’ art movements that were unknown or suppressed in the USSR and it’s vassal states.[iv] It’s of course no secret that art played a role as a weapon in the Cold War or that it can be ideologically tied to the prevalent social and/or political regime that it is produced under.[v] It is, however, instructive as how art can be assessed as productive beyond simply the production of art objects and their viewing.

With these instructive historical events in mind, I asked Branko Franceschi, current director of the Virtual Museum of the Avant-Garde, a few questions regarding international art residency programs and what it means to be ‘productive.’

  1. Is it important to you that an artist be productive during a residency?  What or how would you define being productive in a residency?

That is actually the most important thing for everyone. It is important to the residential artist in order to gain anything from the residency. It is important to the local community because the artist’s productivity is a starting point for communication and exchange. And at the end, it is important to the organizers and financiers because it justifies expense, efforts, and invested energy. In general, I would define productivity as being curious, active and involved with the local cultural context at any of the possible levels ranging from personal contacts and research to the actual production of artwork. One doesn’t expect a residency to be affective immediately but in time. If a residency has an impact on an artist and the host community, it has fulfilled its purpose and thus I would consider it productive. In my experience as an organizer, I always feel that it was worthy if I am, even years after, informed of the possible influence of the residency in an artist’s work or of a collaboration or exhibition project resulting from it.

  1. What would you consider a productive interaction between a resident artist and the larger public of their host community?  Is this even an important aspect of residencies for you as a host (interacting with a larger public)?

[The answer would certainly be] a successful presentation, exhibition, event, performance, lecture that has strong feedback from the public and media.  This feedback could either be found in the active participation of the public, huge turnouts, or interesting critical comments, and future projects. It actually isn’t much different then any other art related event. We have to bear in mind that the essence of the residential programs is cultural exchange. It should work both ways and ideally it should involve large numbers – especially for the demands of evaluation and the continuation of the program itself. But we should also bear in mind the time factor; results of residencies are not necessarily imminent, they may well develop in the future.
3.  In an international residency experience, what is the function of art in your opinion (for example, communication, cultural exchange, etc.)?

I don’t know how to understand this question. Art is the fundamental element, which is on the one hand, the art of the resident artist and, on the other hand, art happening within the context of the host both historically and presently. Art is the communication channel, as in art is a universally understood language of communication. Thus, I believe it is of the foremost importance to the residential artist to inform herself/himself on the local historical and present art production and it is the obligation of the host to assist this research. The residency is successful if interaction of the artist’s work and local art production happens at any level of the creative process, whenever in time and wherever in space. In other words, if contact has happened, occurred, etc.

4.  In your experience, is it difficult to convince and elicit support for international residencies?

During the last decade residency programs became fashionable. In fact, they fit perfectly within agendas and strategies of contemporary civilization and official cultural policies that strongly believe, and thus support, the value of cultural exchange. Contemporary society believes in direct contact and a hands-on experience of different cultural contexts. It believes that the experience of the other should bring more understanding and create new values for the cultural, aesthetic, and ethical, etc. It is much easier in fact to illicit support for residency programs than exhibitions and, most of all, solo shows. For some reason, that is not believed to be an exchange of any sort, which I consider completely wrong and shortsighted.

Branko Franceschi, Director
http://www.avantgarde-museum.com

Edward Schenxnayder is a 2010 Residency Unlimited / Chashama partnership artist in residency.


[i] There is unfortunately little available in English on this subject.  I learned about it largely through conversations in Croatia.  The work of the Croatian curator/sociologist Ana Devic, particularly related to a conference presentation Reception of Modernism Within the Context of Croatian Art since the 1950sheld in Brazil in 2001, is of particular note.

[ii] Branko Franceschi, in a personal interview with Murtic’s widow, told me that his widow said that Murtic paid for the trip himself by selling his art before and after as well as being the sole initiator for the trip.  However, to receive his passport and travel allowance he would have had to describe his intentions to the government who approved them.

[iii] Laura Hoptman and Tomas Pospiszyl, editors.  Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, The MIT Press, 2002.

[iv] A good example is the Crveni Peristil (Red Peristyle) group.  This was a conceptual activist art group formed in 1966 and their most well known act was to paint the ruined peristyle in the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace in Split, Croatia, red, the official color of the communist party in 1968.  Considering that Henry Flynt’s coining of the term “concept art” was in 1961 and that Joseph Kosuth published his essay Art after Philosophy in 1968, Yugoslavian art was well in step with current developments in artistic practice.

[v] Serge Guilbaut How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, University of Chicago Press 1985.


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