The concept of Artist Residencies is not new. Artists retreating from society to focus on ideas and collaborate with others is a centuries-old practice. During the Italian Renaissance, patronage was a very popular way of supporting the arts and culture. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artist colonies sprang up in the countryside as a reaction to the Industrial changes. And today, virtual residencies are popping up to support artists in a chaotic world. Here is a brief look at the importance of patronage and artist residencies, and their development over time.

Patronage and Villa Careggi in the Renaissance

As the Middle Ages began to fade and the Renaissance dawned, it inspired a return to the classical and humanist values inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman societies. Families that amassed power and wealth would show off their personal success by becoming artist’s patrons, financially supporting their work. Some of the most famous and familiar Renaissance works came from the spirit of patronage, such as Di Vinci’s The Last Supper

Some patrons, such as the famous Medici family, enjoyed time away from the crowded and hectic life of the city. They would escape to the countryside and take a break to focus on emerging ideas in arts, culture, and learning. One of the most well-known is the Medici’s Villa Careggi in Italy, now a world heritage site considered the “cultural centre of the early Renaissance.” 

The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci

Escaping the City During the Industrial Revolution

When the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of urban areas and urban life, artists and other individuals seeking culture retreated to the countryside to escape the grind of the modern city. They were looking to honor the simple life outside the city and seek peace and quiet. Across Europe, in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, artists began to develop artist colonies which were the precursors to what we know as artist residencies today. 

Worpswede, an artist colony outside Bremen, housed artists Heinrich Vofeler and Rainer Marie Rilke and was known as “Wesdorf” or a world village. During their escape from urban life, these artists would gather to discuss the day’s issues and work together to create work that would challenge the world. Worpswede, now known as Künstlerhäuser Worpswede, is still open today.

The Heinrich Vogeler Museum in Worpswede

In both the UK and the US, there was a rise in the romantic idea of patronage. Artists were supported by the financially wealthy, given supplies, and studio space both in urban areas and the countryside. 

Seeking Utopia in the Modern Era

In the 1960s, there was a new emergence in artist residencies in tandem with the rise of the counterculture. Some artists wanted to escape the doldrums of bourgeois society. They fled to the countryside once again and sought to create a utopia in seclusion. Much like their counterparts in the early 20th century, they sought new thinking patterns and social change. This period was characterised by the civil rights movements for racial and gender equality and a burgeoning ecological awareness.

As the counterculture subsided, some artists took their art in the opposite direction and decided to stay in the cities and urban areas and be more public and inclusive of society. Artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat embodied this shift back to the cities, while still fostering a community of artists. This concept continued through the 1970s and 1980s. 

MacDowell Colony’s James Baldwin Library

Technology Opens Up a World of Artist Residencies

In the 1990s, as the world moved towards globalisation thanks to technology, so did artist residencies. Artists could now find communities in South America, Africa, and Asia beyond the traditional Western art world. This also helped to increase diversity in artist residencies. 

As the Internet became more predominant in the 2000s, these residencies in other countries became more accessible and popular. Interest grew, and spots became more competitive in response to the demand. The focus became less about having artists and more about what artists could do or bring to a collaboration.

Patronage and Artist Residencies Today

Artist colonies and the system of patronage have converged in today’s world. Museums, galleries, and theatres are hosting small residencies that often focus on a particular work or subject matter and feel similar to the old idea of patronage. Schools and universities are incorporating teaching as a part of a residency, either as a faculty member or guest lecturer. Public inclusive art residencies are found with festivals and governments looking for artists to create with a specific concept in mind. Artist colonies are still alive and well with retreats, studios, and artist-run centres that allow artists to build community and collaborate. Patronage has even gone completely online thanks to crowdfunding sites, opening up the process to more than just the rich. 

With the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a shift towards virtual residencies. Benefactors and artists can now collaborate remotely, which can save both the organisation and artist time and money.

Without a doubt, artist residencies are essential for our culture–both for the artist and benefactors. We would not be where we are today without them.

If you want to learn more about artist residencies we recommend you read our ‘Guide to Artist Residencies


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