Saari Residence


Summer Well 2021: My Journey, Research and Exchange

Kuva: Jussi Virkkumaa

Photo: Jussi Virkkumaa

In August 2021, Saari Residence saw 16 pioneers of residency research come together: writers, researchers and doctoral researchers from the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands, the United States and Finland. Due to the pandemic, the Summer Well event – which is something of a tradition by now –took place more than a year later than planned. In the intervening time, the exceptional circumstances and travel restrictions have driven residencies to quickly reform the way they do things and to reflect on their place in the ever-globalising world of art. In her article, residency expert Irmeli Kokko writes about the discussions that took place during the first Summer Well after the pandemic started.

When the planning of the Saari Residence’s Summer Well event began in early 2019, we were living in a world where making and receiving art, and a culture and way of life that focused on the pursuit of experiences were based on unobstructed international mobility.

In art, since the 1990s, globalisation and digitalisation have meant not only the accelerated production of culture but also new structures that have made the international mobility and collaboration of artists possible. Already in the early 2000s, arts residencies formed a diverse global platform within which artists from different fields could travel, work and stay in different cultural and geographical environments, cities and rural areas.

National and EU cultural policies saw mobility as a significant contributor to the employment of artists, intercultural interaction and the art market; generally the objectives of the UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity.

As we approached the 2020s, the process of cultural globalisation seemed to have reached a saturation point after the optimism of the 1990s. Accelerated climate change, ethical issues concerning cultural diversity and biodiversity, postcolonial perspectives on the production of culture, protectionist movements and exile presented new questions for residencies to consider and deal with. People started to also question the travel-based image of an artist and artistic work in terms of the conditions of creative work.

This was evident, among other things, in the speeches made at the Residencies Reflected Symposium held in 2016, and also when Taru Elfving and I started working on the collection of articles called Contemporary Artist Residencies – Reclaiming Time and Space (2019, Valiz) and putting together a list of writers for it. It was also reflected in the artist interviews for the design of the book, as well as in the writers’ articles.

When writing the introduction for the book, we assessed the current situation at the time as contradictory from the point of view of the activities of an arts residence: on the one hand, as part of the process of cultural globalisation, residencies provided artists with time and space for creative work, creating connections and networking. On the other hand, the endlessly increasing globalisation in the field of art was reflected in the narrowing of the conditions for free creative work and the increasing acceleration of artistic production and being in continuous motion. Residencies contributed to this development.

It was clear that there was a crossroad of some kind ahead. How to guarantee time and space for creative processes, for becoming absorbed in something, for cross-border and transcontinental encounters between artists and for the aesthetic and intellectual exchange of information in a sustainable way, without making residences just one wheel in the ever-accelerating cultural industry? Additionally, the fact that virtual projects and residencies were becoming more and more common begged the question, why travel?

“Does an artist really have to travel abroad to create new works of art?” asked one Finnish artist in an interview conducted in 2018. It was an excellent question. Similarly to countries where there are no structures supporting the creation of visual art or where such structures are weak, many Finnish artists often have to travel to an arts residence abroad in order to focus on creating art. This being the case, are Finnish artists’ working conditions in Finland as they should be? The purpose of residencies is not to make up for the shortcomings of national systems for art, at least not in Europe.

While in the 1990s, the question was what are residencies and in the 2000s how are residencies, now the question is why are they. Based on our collection of articles and artist interviews, the clear conclusion was that regardless of the social upheavals and changes in values prevalent in our time, residencies continue to play a significant role in making interaction between artists and their professional development possible.

Residencies enable the artistic process, sometimes also the implementation of an entire production and the distribution of a work of art. Residencies award grants and/or provide free accommodation and workspace for artists. They guarantee intercultural dialogue, which contributes to the diversity of the arts, and, from a broad perspective, they also support world peace.

Residencies allow artists to implement their art and work primarily as artists among other artists, even if only temporarily. No other art institution does that.

Read an interview with Leena Kela, Director of the Saari Residence, about residency activities during the pandemic

Summer Well at Saari – My Journey

When compiling both the previous symposiums and the collection of articles, we once again noted that there is hardly any literature on residencies and residency activities, whereas there is plenty of literature and research on, for example, curation and the recent history, nature, practices and role of exhibition activities and biennials in the field of art, and more is being written all the time.

There are few studies or academic theses1 on residencies, considering the significant role they play in contemporary artists’ professional careers.

The collection of articles was completed in November 2019, and its first publication event took place at the Res Artis conference2 in Kyoto. That is where we met researchers Miriam La Rosa and Morag Iles, who were writing their doctoral dissertations. The book Contemporary Artist Residencies – Reclaiming Time and Space was the most comprehensive publication on residency activities to date, which is why it attracted wide interest both among arts residency operators and students writing theses and dissertations. We discussed how wonderful it would be to bring together residency researchers, doctoral students and active writers. The planning of such an event began immediately.

The Saari Residence for researchers and artists and its Summer Well had already served as an international meeting place for residency operators and experts in previous years. Hence, Saari Residence’s activities resembled those of other organisations that reflect on residency activities, such as the working group Rethinking Residencies in New York, HIAP’s events and projects that bring together international operators, or the seminars organised by Nida Art Colony. These forums, just like the organisations Res Artis and TransArtists, have regularly contributed to the debate on art residencies by providing an opportunity for the exchange of information and ideas among operators in the field. Artists have also benefitted as residencies have evolved and developed their activities. 

The Saari Residence was a natural choice of venue for the first ever gathering of residency writers and researchers. It soon became apparent that there were dissertations being written by doctoral students that spring of 2019 at least in Melbourne, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Barcelona. Background research into researchers and studies in progress was also begun, information was being exchanged and people were introduced to each other so that they could get to know each other in advance. The group was born and the date for its meeting was set for June 2020.

Then everything came to a halt. Suddenly, residencies based on artists’ presence, the sharing of creative work and discussions between artists were no longer possible. Travelling came to a halt.

More than half of the world’s residency programmes stopped receiving artists or closed their doors altogether. Visual artists in particular suffered from residency cancellations. Finnish visual artists lost residency periods abroad that were important for their work. Virtual residences or home residencies based on open calls were set up for artists.3

The 2020 Summer Well event at the Saari Residence was postponed by one year. And then by another two months.

From the 18th to the 22nd of August 2021, Saari Residence saw 16 pioneers of residency research come together: writers, researchers and doctoral researchers from the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands, the United States and Finland. Two of the researchers attended the event virtually. The time, situation and event were all unique. This was the first time ever that residency researchers met each other face to face, and it happened during a pandemic. Over the course of four days, they gave and attended 15 presentations on studies already conducted, dissertations in progress, new research projects and dissertations recently completed.

How to study residencies? – My Research and Exchange

Arts residencies are an integral part of the ever-globalising world of art; to put it more evocatively, they are a part of the ecosystem of contemporary art. The term ‘art world’ is used not so much to describe a unified world or art and its structures, but the arts and the production of culture as a vast, ever-changing, interacting, living fabric that includes many different art worlds.

Art worlds are constantly born and they disappear. Residencies can be seen as global operators at the beginning of culture production that exist at the periphery and follow the centralised structure of the art world or, described in terms of an ecosystem, as cross-border spheres of action or platforms, as ‘islands’ people travel between and where they work in temporary communities of artists. Residencies offer people the opportunity to interact, either actively or passively, in different local and cultural environments.

The effects of residencies can be viewed from different perspectives: how do they affect artists and the arts; what effects do they have locally, for example in urban and rural areas; and what roles and responsibilities do they have among other art institutions?

In the way that artists’ current international work manifests itself, we can examine residencies and ask, for example, what are the values that guide their activities? What meanings can be found behind residencies’ basic concepts of ‘artistic development’, ‘time and space’, ‘interaction’ and ‘hospitality’? How can we describe the effects of residencies on artists? How do residencies affect the production of art and what roles do they play within the arts ecosystem? What is the role of a curator at a residence? 

Residences also have their own histories. The recent history of current residences can be traced back to the European and American traditions of4 colonies of artists. Residences are not only colonies or gatherings in certain places, but also part of the history of the mobility of artists5.

This interpretation of the history of artists’ mobility and creative work as a western phenomenon can be seen as a continuation of western colonial traditions. In his doctoral dissertation Moving Knowledges: a speculative Arab art residency proto-history for the University of Edinburgh, Pau Catá, a curator and researcher from Barcelona, has presented an alternative story to this interpretation focusing on North Africa and the nomadic poets, intellectuals and artists who travel there. “The debate that frames the history of art residencies is still Eurocentric… The primary aim of this research is precisely to address, challenge and remediate this absence while imagining art residencies’ alternative pasts.”6

Pau Catá’s research involves an impressive, multi-faceted website called An Event without its poem is an event that never happened, which itself resembles a nomadic journey through time, people, landscapes, cultures and works of art.  

Residency activities are associated with concepts that are considered to describe the basic characteristics of arts residencies. The 2000s saw concepts such as ‘hospitality’ and ‘gift-exchange’ gain popularity.Curator Miriam La Rosa, who is finalising her dissertation at the University of Melbourne, is delving deeper into these concepts in her dissertation project The Ontology of Art Residencies: Hospitality and Gift-Exchange. La Rosa examines what happens when artists from very different cultures meet within the framework of the arts residencies hosting them. La Rosa herself was involved in a project in 2019, not only as an organiser but also as an observer. It involved three residency centres from Sicily, Gippsland in South Eastern Australia and Peppimenart from an aboriginal community in Northern Australia. These areas are considered peripheral in terms of both their art worlds and their market economies. “I will however argue that they hold the potential to foster the development of art economies, practices and histories that move beyond the national boundaries of the mainstream art world and (art) history, by means of their own localised rules,” La Rosa says.

“I will however argue that they hold the potential to foster the development of art economies, practices and histories that move beyond the national boundaries of the mainstream art world and (art) history, by means of their own localised rules.”7

The impact of residencies in different peripheries has become a focal point of interest for many reasons. Art is usually geopolitically located in cities and their economies. However, it is artists who have relocated the ‘centres’ of art throughout history when moving en masse, either temporarily or permanently, at times to the countryside, at other times to cities, and often when social conditions change as a result of national politics, wars or social upheavals such as the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Artists’ interest in peripheries has grown again in recent years and is also reflected in the launch of new artists-in-residence programmes in the peripheral regions of the Nordic countries, the Baltic states and Russia. We can think of the climate change as one such upheaval that will also affect the world of art and its practices.

Sustainable development – residencies, the arts and research

The arts and the practices of the art worlds have hardly been studied at all from the perspective of sustainability. The threat of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, as well as global awareness about these threats have radically and quickly changed the way we understand ‘culture’ as a concept and way of life. This point of view is a great starting point for revisiting what the ‘art world’ and its practices are, where they come from and how they are formed.

Is it true that in the field of art, ‘culture’ is an exclusively human-centred system, or should it include non-humans?  And if so, how do we perceive the role of natural beings in creating art? What new approaches does the perspective of sustainable development bring to the practice of art and artistic practices?

Residencies largely rely on artists and art professionals travelling by air. At the same time, residencies clearly demonstrate how changing environments, the climate, fauna, flora, sounds, heat, cold, light or darkness affect artists’ work. Without question, residencies are the creation of a globalised culture, but could they also be ambassadors of new ways of thinking and changes in our experiences? Do residency activities promote cultural and artistic diversity, or do they homogenise the forms, aesthetics and thinking behind art?

These themes were also discussed in the speeches made at the Summer Well.

Ki Nurmenniemi has recently become a student of the Doctoral Programme in Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences (DENVI) at the University of Helsinki. Nurmenniemi’s presentation dealt with their ongoing pioneering research, which examines from an empirical perspective residency organisations’ attitudes towards sustainable development and the potential new ways of operating that stem from them. The study is based on fieldwork in seven European residency organisations from 2013 to 2020. One of these is the Mustarinda Association and Centre whose activities are aimed at post-fossil cultural change through research and the arts. Nurmenniemi’s pioneering project also reveals the flexibility of residency operations. In the 2020s, residences will also transcend social sectors when they become linked to research institutions, or education or training. Taru Elfving’s curatorial work at the Archipelago Research Institute on the island of Seili in the northern Baltic Archipelago Sea has brought together artists and marine and climate supporters for short-term residency workshops over the last few years. Her presentation was given at the Saari Summer Well straight after a researcher seminar on the climate emergency.

But how to continue living, existing and doing artistic work within arts residencies? Jaana Eskola, the coordinator of ecological residency activities at the Saari Residence, took the participants for a walk while presenting the ecologically and socially sustainable practices created by the Saari Residence, slow travel to and from the residence in Finland, practical solutions to benefit the environment and reflections on the basics of the residency activities at Saari.

The next few years following the coronavirus pandemic will show the direction residency activities will take all over the world.

From the practices of art to the theory of residency research

Practical actors involved in arts residencies – curators, cultural professionals who run residencies and, of course, artists – have often themselves defined what residencies are, what they do and what values and goals their operations involve.

Reports assessing their performance are also conducted at national and international levels8. The gathering at the Saari Residence was attended by residency practitioners, artists, curators and experts. Practical knowledge has brought with it an investigative attitude towards the definitions of residencies and a tendency to challenge the concepts used in the activities. The basic concepts used include artistic development, learning and mobility.

Portuguese artist Rita Vargas, who lives and works in Finland, has noted in her 2016 dissertation on the history of art for the University of Jyväskylä, International Artists-in-Residence 1990–2010: Mobility, Technology and Identity in Everyday Art Practices that artists use residencies as strategically self-organised avenues for artistic development. Vargas’s doctoral dissertation is the world’s first dissertation on arts residencies.

In her presentation at the Saari Summer Well, Vargas examined the residency field on the basis of her dissertation and her own residency experiences as a strategy for intercultural adjustment. An artist’s role at a residence includes expectations of adapting to intercultural communication and skills. In the context of mobility programmes, intercultural differences are understood as reciprocal tools for recognising differences that need to be constantly negotiated with the other participants.9

Patricia Healy McMeans is currently teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and has completed her dissertation at Edinburgh College of Art. She came across her research topic The Social Studio through her own artistic work. She has worked as a sculptor since 1995, and over time, as the concrete work of art itself became less and less important in her production, it was replaced by ‘social sculptures’ and the related relational elements. This led her working process away from working alone and towards collaborative work.

McMeans developed the idea of ‘Social Studio Residency’, a practical foundation for artistic work that also became a learning strategy; the simultaneous residency of several artists in a shared studio and residencies based on this method. These practices and the related learning processes also became her research topic. Similar methods combining joint artistic work and learning were developed at the summer schools of the Black Mountain College, which was established in 1933. The main focus of McMeans’ newly completed doctoral dissertation is the fact that communal studio residencies create a unique, experiential learning environment and, at the same time, new artistic practices. She calls this ‘residential learning’. Learning is all about change, and change occurs, for example, in an artist’s habitus when traversing from the experience of individuality towards an experience of an artists’ community. According to Patricia’s research, this can also be experienced through the body, in the way mutual trust grows and in taking others into consideration. This also affects the residency format as a learning environment10, which comes close to the Black Mountain heritage. McMeans’ dissertation is available online.

Arts residencies, artists and the creative economy

In Scotland, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), through the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH), is funding research into the effects of residencies on artists as part of the Creative Economy programme. Morag Iles is one of the 13 doctoral students selected through interviews to conduct the research. In her empirical study, she analyses the impact of the three residency programmes involved on artists’ livelihoods, work and practice of art. The research is guided by the concepts, values and research methods of the creative economy, as defined by AHRC.

In her presentation at the Summer Well, Iles analysed in a fascinating way the complex criteria, concepts and values that a researcher encounters in seeking to produce information that is useful for both academic research and the creative economy. At best, this will also result in new solutions.

What concepts do artists use when describing the importance of a residency to themselves as a period of time and duration? Through her interviews with artists, Iles ended up describing the artists’ experiences of residencies with the phrase ‘temporally emergent’11.

Read Morag Iles’ interview on residency research

In addition to the Glasgow Creative Economy programme, there are few academic research projects under way that concern arts residencies. One of these is a research project recently started at the University of Groningen by Kathryn Roberts and Sara Strandvad. Kathryn Roberts spoke about the current phase of the research project which involves examining the applicability of Actor Network Theory (ANT) to residency research. As global operators, arts residencies have strongly shaped artists’ work and works of art since the 1990s. In Roberts’ and Strandvad’s opinion, residency research requires a multidisciplinary approach that does justice to the complex nature of residency activities.

Art sociologist Sara Strandvad’s area of research includes the processes of cultural production, and her special interests are creative work, the sociology of art, cultural intermediaries and post-Bourdieuian sociology of art. Kathryn Roberts works at the same university as a researcher and assistant professor in American literature. Roberts became interested in exploring arts residencies in more depth when writing her previous study on the McDowell Colony.

Residency as time and essence

Kari Conte, a New York curator and author who has worked as the artistic director of the International Studio and Curatorial programme for 10 years, considered the possibilities of curator residencies to introduce new research, writing and art projects in her presentation Saying yes to everything that comes up. During her career, Conte has also set up the Rethinking Residencies network, which provides New York-based residency organisations with the opportunity to reflect on and discuss the future directions of residency activities.

From the point of view of artistic production, residency activities cannot be described as actions aimed solely at the production, distribution and reception of works of art or actions whose ‘effectiveness’ can be unambiguously assessed. At the heart of residency activities are the artist’s own development, artistic freedom and experimentation, interaction and networking. Within residency activities and as described by residency organisations themselves, creative work is seen as a process-like period consisting of various stages – in other words, as a project in which the stages and components of production are fluid and simultaneous12.

The subject of the research presentation by Angela Serino, a curator living and working in Amsterdam, was time – the basic premise and ‘default setting’ relating to a residence’s duties is ‘to provide time and space for creative work’.

Serino says the starting point for her research is the observation of how people talk about residencies as a continuous, moment-to-moment timeline that is periodically punctuated by certain events: starting, work followed by a public event and, in the end, a final report to the organisers and funders of the residency.

When reporting on what residencies mean to artists, the discussion often focuses, for example, on international networking or a visible activity that can be directly observed. What is more difficult to capture are the meanings and effects of a residency that remain invisible. When it comes down to it, these may constitute the end result of a residency – no directly observable impact, no great work of art or exhibition. How do we talk about the effects of residencies on artists in cases like this? How do we talk about the time the artist experiences during the residency? Is it possible that the time spent at a residency and how we understand it and talk about it includes different timelines? These timelines can be quick and visible or slow, not immediately discernible. What’s more, they can manifest over a long period of time – perhaps an entire lifetime. Their effects can be compared to learning processes.

Significantly, Serino approaches her topic analytically through theory, works of art and artist interviews, in which the artists describe their processes of making art with pictures and words. Serino’s cross-cutting approach opens up the debate on the effects of residencies on artists and takes the debate forward, while demonstrating the way theory, art, and artists’ own descriptions can, at best, strengthen and deepen the debate and research on residency practices.

Read Angela Serino’s interview about the effects of the pandemic on artists’ work

Literature about residencies

Re-tooling Residencies, 2011

Exhibist Issue 8

Kunstlich. Vol. 39, No 2, 2018, Unpacking Residencies: Situating The Production Of Cultural Relations

Contemporary Artist Residencies. Reclaiming Time and Space (Valiz, 2019).


1 The pioneers of  academic residency research in Finland are Vargas 2016; Nurmenniemi 2012 and Kokko-Viika 2008.
2 Res Artis – Worldwide Network of Arts Residencies is a global network and organisation that brings arts residencies together.
3 Analytical Report – Covid-19: Impact Survey on the Arts Residencies Field.
4 For example, Nina Lübbren: Rural Artist Colonies in Europe 1870–1910. 2001.
5 Annika Waenerberg has studied the history of artists’ travel. Her article can be read, for example, in Arsis 3/20056
6 Excerpt (ed.) from Pau Catá’s presentation summary.
7 Miriam La Rosa. The Ontology of Art Residencies: Hospitality and Gift-Exchange, excerpt from the presentation summary.
8 For example, Policy Handbook on Artists’ Residencies or Riitta Heinämaa’s Den finländska residensverksamheten i dag – nuläge och utvecklingsbehov.
9 Rita Vargas. International Artists-in-Residence: Cross-Cultural Adaptation Process and Contextual Barriers. Part of the presentation summary.
10 Social Studio Research
11 A quotation from the summary of Morag Iles’ presentation “Residencies as ‘temporally emergent’ (Pickering, 1993) – always doing, becoming and unfolding in-through-of practice (Koro-Ljundberg, Maclure, and Ulmer 2018).”
12Taiteilijaresidenssitoiminnan rooli nykytaiteen tuotannossa (The role of arts residency activities in the production of contemporary art). Kokko-Viika, 2008.

Irmeli Kokko