artist space

Catalyzing social change through the arts

2017 Best Master’s Project in Economic Development Award

Rachel Wexler

Envisioning art as a tool for both economic development and social activism, Wexler offers an analysis on art and its social value in communities. She especially places attention on the relationship between the artist and their residency as they navigate the often complex, political workings of the residency administration, its funders and donors, encompassing organizations, and governmental bodies. Wexler approaches two different artist residencies for the base of her research: the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Hubbub artist residency program in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Deliberately choosing two locations that clash (McColl, an internationally established site, versus the Hubbub, small and locally influential), these two case studies seek to show how artists in different residencies engage with the community and balance their values against those of the residency administration. In turn, attention is also given to how residency administrations support their artists while taking into account what their funders view as socially/economically valuable art. These findings are solidified and applied in Wexler’s own artist residency program, Artists in Residence (Revolution Mill, or AirRev).

The McColl Center and the Hubbub offers an observation into the impact of a residency in molding a community’s receptivity to art and its values. Art’s isolation stems from inaccessibility, not only from a physical barrier, but also an elitist aura felt by the general public that reinforces its closed space. It becomes essential, then, for residency administrations to promote authentic, engaging relationships between the artist and their community. To do so, a decisive first step lies in the selection process of the artist in entering a residency. Selecting an artist who aligns with or are in solidarity with certain community issues may emphasize genuine regards toward public engagement, if a residency deems that critically important. A residency may also be guided by specific social activism roots, for which a safe space is extended to the artist. The artist, then, may be secure in the freedom and care given and become able to create and cater to themselves, their residency program, and their local community. In return, the community may reciprocate both socially and economically by becoming involved with the process of making and consuming art.

However, achieving this relies often on the support of donors and forming strategic partnerships—which are also contingent on overlapping values and agendas. Findings suggest that artist residencies with common ground between themselves, their partners, and their funders, may fare better in synchronizing and creating authentic solutions to social and economic development within their communities. Funders, especially, while fulfilling their support for the arts, may generally be detached from the work of the artist. Partners, meanwhile, may initiate collaborations that help fill in closed gaps. As an entity designed to support artists first and foremost, artist residencies under such alliances should then support the artist’s freedom to produce art that succeeds in satisfying personal values, and supervise the artist as they then create opportunities that engage with community agendas, economic needs, and social activism.

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