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Social-Practice Residencies :: Findings

Alliance of Artists Communities





While artist residencies have traditionally provided opportunities for artists to work in solitude, many residency programs today are designed specifically around artists engaging the local community. Increasingly, organizations still primarily offering retreat-style residencies are expanding into community-engaged work as well, and looking for best-practices from peers.  

In response to these significant shifts in the residency field, we began this discovery project with two guiding questions:

1) How can artist residencies be a platform for engaging communities in meaningful and responsible ways?

2) What do artists need to succeed in community-engaged work, and how best can residency programs serve those needs? 







   a. Introduction

   b. Selecting artists-in-residence

   c. Laying the groundwork

   d. Residency duration

   e. Building community

   f. Providing resources

   g. Themes + content

   h. Best-practices

   i. Conclusions

10 Essential Tips for Social-Practice Residencies

Our first challenge was in defining our terms and scope.

Understanding there is incredible expertise already in the field of "social-practice art", our focus is on how this work relates specifically to artist residencies. And while we are interested in how social-practice artists can be better served by residencies of all kinds (including those offering solitude and retreat), we set out to investigate the work of social-practice residencies specifically. 

Rather than simply an either/or, most residencies operate along the continuum of retreat-style to community-immersive. Many organizations provide programs for artists-in-residence to engage the public – including open studios, artist talks and readings, performances, workshops, etc. – even while the primary focus is on offering artists a studio-based experience.

In order to focus our investigation, we define social-practice residencies as residency programs that, as a primary goal, enable artists-in-residence to engage in community-based work in significant ways throughout a residency.

Our goals for this project address the four groups engaging in this work:

1) Artist residencies will be better equipped to support artists with a social practice and engage communities in meaningful ways – with a network of peer support and frameworks that have been tested.

2) Artists interested in social-practice residencies will have more opportunities, they will be better served by these programs, and their work will have greater impact.

3) Funders and other stakeholders will have a greater understanding of the critical role residency programs can play in their communities and the value social practice artists bring in addressing the challenging issues of our times. 

4) Community leaders will be better equipped to serve as partners to residency programs and artists with a social practice. 

Our intent is to generate a living field of practice within the artist residency sector that continues to evolve over time, encourages sharing of challenges and successes, builds upon the significant history and existing expertise in social-practice art, and adds to the broader social-practice field.


The Alliance of Artists Communities developed this project over several years, hearing from residency leaders about how their programs were changing and the need for better models of social-practice residencies. We became regular participants in Open Engagement (an annual conference on social practice art-making) to better understand the needs of social practice artists and how residencies fit in this broader context. Our annual conferences and institutes have given us an opportunity to present models, hear from thought leaders, expand the cohort of social-practice residency programs, and spotlight the work being done in this field. Along this entire process, we have gathered articles, reports, how-to guides, and other resources to share with residency leaders, and we continue to expand this body of work. Guiding our investigation into every aspect of this work is an Advisory Group of artists, residency program directors, and other arts leaders who have deep experience and knowledge in social practice.

Our first survey for this research was distributed to over 800 residency programs, establishing where they fall along the continuum of social engagement and identifying the challenges and successes of this work. Among the 93 respondents, we selected eleven for further research and potential case studies.

Our second survey was distributed to artists. The 128 respondents provided insightful input on what kind of support they need, what their past residency experiences have been, and how these activities can be more successful. Twenty artists were selected for more in-depth interviews. 

As we move forward in this work, we will continue to host sessions at our conference on social practice, expand networking opportunities for residency leaders engaging in this work, and provide more toolkits for those at the early stages of developing social-practice residencies. For artists, we continue to adapt our online directory of residency programs to better identify social-practice residencies and ensure clarity of expectations, and we are committed to including artists’ voices in all our research, convenings, and field assessments.



The field of artist residencies was founded to provide artists with dedicated time and space to create new work, in an environment of open inquiry and free from prescribed outcomes. Today there are more than 1,500 residency programs worldwide offering such opportunities, each in its own way. Representing a major shift from just a few decades ago, more than one-third of residency programs in the U.S. consider community-engagement a core part of their residency-related activities. Of the 500 residency programs in the U.S., we estimate at least 15% that fall within our definition of social-practice residencies: residency programs that, as a primary goal, enable artists-in-residence to engage in community-based work in significant ways throughout a residency. 

While there are a higher percentage of such programs in urban areas, social-practice residencies are also found in small towns and rural communities, in stand-alone arts centers and within other institutions (such as museums, universities, and government facilities). There is no one-size-fits-all approach to such work, though we did observe a number of common lessons learned.

The type of community engagement likewise varies widely. Some organizations ask artists to propose a specific project to be done in the community that may address a particular population, topic, or set of partners. Others ask artists to reflect on a given theme or issues relevant to the local community. Still others ask artists to meet a certain level of engagement but leave the actual work to be discovered throughout the residency period. The following pages include examples of these different approaches, from both the artists’ and the organizations’ perspectives.

Selecting Artists-in-Residence

Among residency programs in general, some 85% have an open application process. Among social-practice residencies, however, one-half utilize some form of nominated or curated process. This difference in approaches is not surprising, as social-practice residencies may find it easier to identify artists through nomination that fit a particular skill set, theme, or approach to community.

While studio-based residency programs might focus their selection primarily on an artist’s work samples, social-practice residencies generally have other criteria to evaluate an artist’s suitability for a program.

A good starting point for developing selection criteria is articulating the kind of impact organizations want to have in their communities (see Case Studies in the Social-Practice Toolkit for examples of impact goals and how they relate to selection criteria).

“The lasting impact you hope to have on your community will help you decide how to think about what quality and success looks like for you and your project,” says Springboard for the Arts in its Irrigate toolkit. “For Irrigate, quality was defined by community relevance.”

Defining artistic merit can be difficult, especially for organizations for whom a social-practice program is a newer venture. Often an artist’s work samples are documentation of a process, engagements with the community, and ideas that merge art and social justice. Many social-practice residencies eschew traditional selection panels of jurors in favor of an advisory group that has familiarity with social practice and can evaluate an artist’s quality of work based on a combination of aesthetics, ability to connect with an audience, and critical thinking around relevant issues.

For social-practice residencies, it is especially important that artists be able to develop work that will resonate with the community, have the skills to activate partners and the public in this work, and have an understanding of their role in the community. As an organization, are you interested in helping artists without a lot of social-practice experience expand their skill sets, or must the artists have a demonstrated track-record of community-based work? Do you expect artists to engage with segments of the community that have historically been mistreated, are particularly vulnerable, or involve youth; and does the organization have the capacity to help artists navigate this terrain respectfully and successfully?

Working backwards from an organization’s intended impact and outcomes can determine the criteria by which artists will be selected, and – stepping backwards again – the items called for in an application. If what you are looking for, for example, is sensitivity around particular social issues and working with specific populations, project proposals may be less instructive in the selection process than allowing artists to talk openly about challenges they’ve encountered in past work and how they see their role in a community. In-person or virtual interviews can be greatly helpful, and residency directors state that no matter what the selection process you have to be prepared to help artists traverse the personalities, politics, and partners once they are on the ground.

“Artists have to remain flexible and adaptive while doing this work.... It’s not always easy to screen for this beforehand! But an experienced artists knows uncertainty is par for the course.”

Whatever the process, be transparent about how and by what criteria applicants will be assessed. Respect the time and effort it takes to develop an application and encourage artists to discuss their ideas in advance, to gauge whether s/he might be a good fit for a residency program. (See Applications in the Social Practice Toolkit for examples.)

Laying the Groundwork

Any residency comes with a unique set of expectations, and social-practice residencies in particular must clearly state what is expected of artists, how much support the organization can provide, and what the intended outcomes are. For example, does the organization expect a final product at the end of the residency? Will the artist be expected to document his/her process throughout a residency? Is staff available to ensure the artist’s project is feasible and successful? Is the artist expected to spend a certain number of hours engaging the community, and does the residency adequately allow for the private time needed for research, planning, reflection, and restoration? (We’ve included several good examples in our Social Practice toolkit of programs descriptions that outline these details.)

Many artists describe the significant amount of preparation required for community-engaged projects, and express frustration that there are not adequate resources for planning. Even if the organization provides funding once the residency has begun, researching and preparing for site-specific projects is time-consuming and generally done on the artist’s own time.

“There are many hours of planning before the actual art-making. Most entities do not understand that the bulk of the work is done before the hands-on dates.” Some residencies require a site visit in advance of a residency. This is a great way for the artist to gain insight into the community and the program staff, but it is important that artists be supported for the time and expense involved.

Developing a project that is specific to the local community frequently requires an understanding of that community, its populations, potential partners, and ways of engaging. Most artists responded that, while they have some ideas for projects in advance, they prefer to get to know a community first and develop projects on the ground.

“For residencies about engaging a local community on a local issue, I prefer to come without any preconceptions about what I will do… If the residency is about community engagement on local issues then I think it is really important to be present in that community and location before generating plans.”

Only 19% of social-practice residencies surveyed require that artists propose a specific project in advance of the residency, while the remainder work with artists after arriving to determine how they might engage the public. “We ask artists to propose ideas in advance, not as a solid plan that we expect them to execute but rather to gauge their thought processes, the ideas and topics that interest them, and to look for alignment in the local community,” writes one residency director. Getting a sense of an artist’s plans in advance can also give the organization an opportunity to identify potential community partners and begin building relationships between the artist and community members.

Regardless of how defined project plans are in advance, artists and residency directors alike advocate for a spirit of openness in allowing work to adapt and outcomes to change. Springboard for the Arts advises organizers to “Think more about what you want the projects to do, and less about what they will be – leave that to the artists to imagine and deliver.”
Residency Duration

Many of the best-practices both artists and residency leaders shared relate to the duration of a social-practice residency. For example, shorter residencies require greater advanced planning, more preparation by residency staff to establish the resources needed for an artist to hit the ground running, and clear expectations about what is realistic. Longer residencies allow time for artists to explore a community before determining the work s/he might do, build relationships, and leave room for projects to evolve. In the overall field, the average length of a residency is around 4 weeks, while social-practice residencies average three months (with many much longer).

"I notice it takes me about 1 month to even feel like I am getting to know a place and am settling down. Right now I have a residency for 10 months, and it really feels like I am living here and am a part of this community, as opposed to being an outsider or a guest just popping in. It's a nice feeling to feel settled and rooted in a place and to feel like my whole practice is supported, not just the projects I am doing here with the community. I feel supported as a human being.”

For many artists, taking this much time away is not possible. Several respondents state that they prefer multiple short residencies, in order to build relationships with a community over time.

“Community work is about trust and freedom, the faith that something is coming together also when it does not have a specific form at the beginning. That transformation for the artist and the community is fundamental and most important of all it needs time; it cannot be done without several incursions in the community.”

Seventy percent of artists state that more flexible scheduling is critical for a successful social-practice residency, and just under half consider this a significant challenge when participating in residencies. Meanwhile, just 22% of residency program respondents state that they adjust the timing and duration of residencies according to an artist’s specific project and needs. For many, this is simply a logistical consideration, juggling the schedules of many artists at a time and coordinating a variety of programs. But for other organizations, flexible scheduling is prioritized and built into the structure of the program.

“Grand Central Art Center allows the artist as much freedom as possible, leaving open the potential for multi-visits, multi-site interactions, and partnerships. The duration of residencies are not limited; they are determined on a project-by-project basis, with ongoing conversations throughout a residency. GCAC residencies to-date have lasted from three weeks to over four years.”

Building Community

Overwhelmingly, artists and residency directors state the most significant factor in the success of social-practice residencies is building relationships with the community. Not surprisingly, most of the challenges stated by both respondent groups also relate to building connections between the artists and the community. Organizations rely on the artists to envision compelling work, while artists rely on the organization to facilitate the community environment. “Beyond community relations,” one artist writes, “an ideal socially-engaged artist residency would maintain strong, mutually supportive relationships with local partners in order to facilitate art projects, and ensure that the community can truly benefit from engagement.” 

From the artists’ perspective, the organization provides an essential context to ensure the artist’s work is relevant, beneficial, and feasible for the community. Additionally, artists look to the residency institution to help identify appropriate people and organizations in the community to be involved in a project; provide introductions; serve as an intermediary as needed (particularly when there is a significant power differential between the artist and the community partner); and be a guide into local language, culture, context, players, and issues. Artists who may be perceived as “outsiders” often need greater staff support to be welcomed into a community and to establish trust. While many of these interactions happen on a case-by-case basis with each artist, the organization’s overall reputation within a community can greatly impact the artist’s experience. “A residency program should develop its own sense of deep citizenship so that it acts as a true gatekeeper and stakeholder in that community and thus facilitates the trusting relationships a newcomer artist needs from the start.”

Among residency programs, 87% of respondents state they provide staff support to artists to identify and develop connections with community partners. Having designated staff as the go-to for artists and community partners is essential for social-practice residencies, particularly for organizations committed to helping less-experienced artists gain new skills in community-engagement. Artists often find it difficult to activate the community to participate in art-making, and rely on the organization to validate the work and help create enthusiasm. A majority of organizations surveyed maintain relationships with a variety of potential partners, while also connecting artists to new people, businesses, and/or institutions. Organizations frequently struggle with providing the right balance of hands-on support for relationship management and providing a framework for artists to work independently with community members, knowing how critical these relationships are for a project’s success.

“If the chemistry is off between any of the collaborators it can be painful,” says one residency director. “We don't have the funding or the staff and facility capabilities to allow for multiple visits to test that chemistry or maintain a long project.”

More than one-third of residency program respondents say they find it difficult to anticipate the staff support required to adequately support an artist’s work. Seventy-percent of respondents, for example, have helped facilitate permits, permissions, and other procedural requirements on behalf of artist’s projects, which can frequently take up significant amounts of time. More than two-thirds of respondents also provide staff members to help in project development and offer problem-solving feedback.

Despite the intensity of staff support for in-depth community-engagement, residency directors express an enthusiasm for this work and the impact it has on partners and the public.

“We now have a great network of trusted community collaborators and we are engaging new individuals and institutions all the time, thanks to an amazing roster of artists who bring openness, vulnerability, and energy to this work.”

Providing Resources

In addition to human capital, social-practice residencies often provide financial support and other resources as well. The good news: Whereas one-third of all U.S. residency programs offer stipends to artists-in-residence, more than half of social-practice residencies provide direct financial support to artists, in the form of stipends, a budget for materials, and other project expenses. The bad news: A lack of adequate financial support is stated as the number one barrier for artists interested in participating in a social-practice residency.

For those residency programs that don’t offer direct financial support, expectations should be matched to the resources provided. Working Artists for the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) has developed guidelines around fees for artists working in a variety of contexts; while many of the examples relate to presentational work (lectures, workshops, demos, etc.), it offers a good introduction to appropriate compensation. (See Guides for Residency Programs in the Social Practice Toolkit for more information.)

Of course a residency program is also providing non-monetary support – housing, studio space, promotion, staff support, professional documentation, etc., all of which are extremely valuable. But being artist-centered means looking critically at the balance between the organization’s support and the artist’s investment. “When does this stop being an opportunity for me to explore ideas and start being an unpaid commission?” asks one artist. While there are no hard-and-fast rules about financial support for social-practice residencies, it’s important to know how your organization compares to others and understand how artists perceive what you are providing vs. what you are asking in return.

One way organizations can help artists overcome the financial barriers is by assisting them in securing other funding. Over 60% of artists surveyed say they supplement a residency with other grants. Organizations committed to social-practice residencies can help identify other funding sources, seek sponsorship and in-kind support within the local community, and write letters of support on an artist’s behalf. 

Themes + Content

Social-practice residencies encourage work that will resonate with the local community in some way, though there is a broad spectrum of how prescriptive an organization might be in presenting themes or narrowing an artist’s content.

“We trust artists. Artists with social-change and community-engagement practices have breathing room to nourish themselves here,” writes one residency director.

Most social-practice residencies ask artists to develop work that is in some way a reflection of the local community, and there has been a rise in the number of thematic residencies in recent years in particular. For example, Santa Fe Art Institute develops a year-long theme that carries throughout all its programming – residencies, exhibitions, workshops, etc. – and artists are asked to relate their work to that theme when they apply. This approach allows SFAI to engage an issue in a variety of ways, and share the responsibility of developing content with the artists-in-residence. The selected themes are at once deeply local and broadly global (for example, water rights, immigration/emigration, and food justice), providing an opportunity for the Santa Fe community to connect to SFAI while also putting the work in context and attracting artists who bring the perspectives of different locales to the theme.

McColl Center for Art + Innovation, in Charlotte, North Carolina, has identified seven content areas for its residency program, called Spheres of Impact: beauty, business innovation, craft, design + architecture, education, environment, and health. Each sphere has its own goals, community partners, and processes for identifying participating artists. Artists are selected to participate in a particular sphere, though the specific content of the work to be done during a residency is largely developed once the artist is on-site.

The degree to which a social-practice residency determines the content or issues in an artist’s work vary widely, though all the residency directors surveyed state that it is expected the work will change once a residency is underway. 


With such a diverse field, it is difficult to make broad assumptions about how to approach such work. Peer-to-peer learning is incredibly valuable, and we have gathered a variety of materials to help residency programs in their approach to this work, including:

- Guides for residency programs

- Residency case studies

- Sample documents for residency programs

- A collection of testimonials, essays, and feedback from artists

- A list of networks, thought leaders, and publications

In addition, we continue to develop networks within the Alliance of Artists Communities that focus on social-practice, to connect with each, inform the Alliance’s work, and provide content for our conferences, publications, research projects, policies, and more.


Artist residencies are inherently about disruption – stepping out of a comfort zone into a new context, pushing oneself to explore and experiment, shifting between the validation that someone deemed you worthy and the uncertainty of being worthwhile. They have consistently placed greater value on people and process than on products, and have embraced the messy, unpredictable nature of art-making for over a century. There will always be those residencies that offer solitude and retreat – as there should be! – to allow artists to plunge into the often-uncomfortable depths rarely afforded those of whom we ask so much and give so little. But so, too, are residencies a fertile ground for social-practice – grappling with the intersections of place, identity, change, social systems, justice and injustice; and granting artists the same freedom to explore and engage in critical ideas outside the studio as within. The rise of social-practice artist residencies is not so much a radical shift as it is an extension of the spectrum, in a field always keen to adapt to the needs of artists. Most importantly, it is a shift driven by artists themselves, eager to find a supportive environment in which to engage new communities in the critical issues that matter most to them.

This is not work to be done lightly. That said, there are many experienced social-practice residency practitioners and a growing body of knowledge about social practice on which to rely. The Alliance of Artists Communities is committed to contributing to this body of knowledge and the community of practitioners – new and experienced – to share lessons learned and encouragement as we all continue to challenge ourselves to support artists in their work.

We welcome you into this living conversation, collection of resources, and growing network!


1) Align this work with your mission. Have a clear and authentic intention of why you want to bring artists and the community together and what impact you hope to have.

2) Be community-centered. Relevance and needs of the community should drive the work, and the community should be involved in shaping projects. Active engagement and collaboration, and an investment over time, are essential to address complex social issues.

3) Be artist-centered. Consider the artist as an integral part of community-engagement and as a partner with the institution and the community, rather than as a tool for serving a need.

4) Selection and willingness of the artist are fundamental to success. Develop a process and criteria that will identify artists well suited to community-engagement and to your particular community.

5) Prepare in advance, but let projects evolve on-the-ground. Support artists in planning and learning about the community before a residency, but allow for plans to crystallize once an artist is present.

6) Time is critical. Shorter residencies may be best suited for artists who already have community-engagement skills, pre-planned projects, and/or engaging partners the organization already has a relationship with. Longer residencies can support artists still building social-practice skills, more open-ended work, and exploring new partners and audiences within the community.

7) Commit resources. Facilitating meaningful, in-depth engagement between artists and your community takes time, money, and staffing.

8) Manage expectations around the artists-in-residence and the community. Consider what happens to relationships and projects after the residency.

9) Be a liaison. Understand and frame the community context for the artist, and be willing to facilitate relationships. This is an ongoing process, not just a step taken at the beginning.

10) Foster mutual respect between artists, the community, and the organization(s).

Deb Dormody | Director of Operations + Programs 

Caitlin Strokosch | Executive Director 

This project is funded in part by support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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