Reflections on the evaluation of residency applications

Even though the work of the evaluators is anonymous – or perhaps precisely because of this – we want to shed a little light on the work.

No matter what you are assessing or what kinds of opinions you are providing, you are dealing with serious matters. Whether you are selecting students, assessing grant applications or making decisions on residency places, you hope that you are able to see exactly what you are supposed to in the application and that you understand what the applicant means. Understanding the message in the application is a sum of many factors. It is a meeting of the author and the reader of the application, with all their wisdom and with all their imperfections.

As I read each application I simply considered whether this piece would be interesting to see, read, experience, participate in, find out more about. When making decisions on residency places you also need to think whether you would like to meet these people and come into contact with them. Even at a place like the Saari Residence we want to create a kind of team, even though the residents mainly work alone or in their group. These people have to live together for up to two months. I also thought about collegial partnership: would these two get on if they were at the Saari Residence at the same time? What would come out of a meeting of these two?

These applications were not made face-to-face, so I had to settle on my gut feeling when reading what was on paper, and my intuition. Applicants are also asked to describe other areas of interest and goals in the application, which is also very helpful. This tells you a lot.

Reading applications is an enriching task. Time and time again I am taken aback by the massive range of subjects and perspectives that artists use to monitor the world.

I found it easy to comprehend concrete suggestions. Right now I am clearly yearning for strong and distinct “subjects”. I don’t know whether this is related to the current state of the world, but I failed to be inspired by applicants who wanted to focus on their actual field of art or the collision of one or more fields of art. Exploring and testing artistic methods is fruitful, but this exploration still needs some kind of substance: Why are we doing this and from what angle? Simply put, I was looking for a subject, theme, message, perspective, question… and why not something to say as well, or at least the search for this. If an applicant avoids “underlining” matters in the application then there is always the chance that the reader will drown in a quagmire of vagueness.

When I assessed Saari Residence applications I also considered whether needing a peaceful place and time to work was enough of a reason. How much should the project themes be related to the residence’s location in naturally beautiful surroundings, far away from the fast pace of urban life. On the other hand, I thought it might be a good thing if projects had nothing to do with the surrounding landscape and atmosphere.

Almost all of the applications made no mention of where and when the piece would be made public or anything else concrete. I found myself looking for answers. When is the opening night? Where will I be able to see this? Will the piece disappear somewhere or will it continue to be developed even after the residency period? I tried to reassure the result-oriented part of myself by reminding myself that the applicants would still just be preparing their pieces at the residency. There is plenty of time to think about where the results could be presented (if not at the Saari Residence) and this might only become clear during the residency period.

I thought it would be nice if the fruits of the work at the Saari Residence were more visible in Turku and stages in Turku (for example the Tehdas Teatteri and Barker Teatteri theatres and the Kutomo contemporary art space). Perhaps this could be an area in which to develop cooperation?

Practical questions also came to mind. Is it a good idea for couples to go to the residency? How would this work? What if one half of the couple is successful while the other half is not? How do I juggle overlapping timetable requests? Is an applicant from a warm country aware of what it is like to stay in the middle of the countryside in Finland in January?

What is my attitude to applicants who have already spent time at the Saari Residence? Is it fair for them to “have another go”, or is it a good thing from the perspective of continuity? In this respect the assessor needs to listen to the people who have already been in contact with the applicants. How did the residency period go? Is it worth inviting the artist or group to return so they can finish off something that was unfinished last time? Were they great enough to warrant a return the residence? At least one thing was obvious, Saari Residence alumni knew exactly how they would use a new residency period. The work plans were specific and realistic.

Some applications were missing appendices, like a work plan. This was not always a problem if the essential parts were already outlined in the application forms. A missing CV was a bigger problem as this meant that part of the applicant’s background was a mystery.

It is likely that you know something about the Finnish applicants, even if you are unsure what they have been up to recently. However, foreign applicants are another thing. It is difficult to evaluate the quality and status of artistic education in their country, or how respected they are there. Photos, video clips and a good CV are all very valuable materials when you are dealing with unknown applicants. And, ultimately, of course the actual application form and how matters are presented on this. This is true for applications by both Finnish and foreign applicants.

I really hope that my assessments at least somehow hit the mark and that the people making the decisions found them helpful. I know it will all work out in the end and I am sure that the deserving applicants will get a place.


The author assessed applications for Saari Residence places in 2016 in one area of art.