Residencies as a new model for getting bookings

Jon Silpayamanant teaching an "Alien Music for Kids" workshop at a Sci-Fi convention (Cyphan) in Chicago

I’ve been mulling over this idea for some time now since reading Rena Shagan’s “Booking & Tour Management for the Performing Arts” a few years ago.  In the chapter titled “Trends for the Future” (Chapter 11) Shagan brings up four items that she found most consistently brought up in interviews with “managers, presenters and funders covering a wide range of organizations, art forms, and geography.”

The first item in a four point list was:

Presenters and artists are more involved in project-based touring, including residencies during which an artist will spend several weeks in a community; commissioning of work by a presenting organization or several presenting organizations; long-term relationships between presenting organizations and artists.

I’m going to focus a bit on the first, residencies.  First, I should mention that Shagan’s book is from 1996, so residencies have become something of a standard booking engagement for artists now.

For the traditional performing arts and in academia residencies can and often do take several weeks (as Shagan mentions) up to years.  And this happens in every aspect from small to larger organizations.  While I was in music school, the composition professor, Dr. David Ott, was the composer in residence with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.  The Cleveland Orchestra had been doing residencies in Florida over the past few years.  Chamber music groups, individual artists, theater troupes, dancers, all of them often do short residencies at Universities where the format will involve not simply a performance, but often masterclasses, private instruction, lectures or other kinds of presentations.

This is nothing new for the traditional (and usually nonprof) performing arts.

Residencies of the sort above can be as short as a day, as well.  It’s not uncommon to find a performing artist, especially if on a tour, to be engaged for a ‘meet-and-greet’, masterclass, then evening performance.

A weekend symposium, conference or festival is usually filled with similar kinds of residencies usually by a number of artists and presenters.  I went to a couple of performance art symposiums at Penn State (in 1996 and 2000) which included a number of internationally known performance artists (and presenters/lecturuers) who did talks, workshops as well as performances throughout the whole weekend.

The same model of special event residencies happens in Conventions such as the numerous Sci-Fi conventions I’ve been performing at over the past few years.  While these kinds of events are generally fan run ad involved little (if any) pay, the idea of having a number of panel and workshop offerings can defray the cost of, say a weekend pass and a booth in the dealer’s room as well as lodging in some cases.

By far one of the most interesting communities I’ve seen the weekend residency happen is the rising bellydance and ethnic dance communities.  And here, it is a bit different since this doesn’t involve nonprof organizations.  But somehow the model works well enough that many relatively big name dancers find it financially feasible to do them.  It’s not uncommon to find a dancer doing two workshops on a Friday or Saturday, an evening performance, and then a workshop or two on the following Saturday or Sunday.

In almost all cases the performance to non-performance ration is very low–in other words, performance is just a highlight of the residency.  What is important is the community involvement.  In other words the community of music, theater or dance students at a university; the community of performance artists, bellydancers, or Sci-Fi fans that converge on a festival, convention, or symposium; the community of the population of a city in which an orchestra or composer or dance company is in residence–these are the important (and often much more financially rewarding for the performer) than simply touring and performing which, for most musicians (and other performers) just won’t make a sustainable living (and never really has).

As Rena Shagan explains it in the section “Growing Interest in Project-Based Touring”:

Today, presenters and their audiences want an artist’s time in their community to be more than fleeting, and artists are tired of running from engagement to engagement, hardly able to remember where they performed last week.  Groups of presenters increasingly are working collaboratively to accomplish mutual goals.  In addition, this new emphasis on project-based touring is being fueled by the monies that a variety of public and private agencies have invested in long-term residencies and commissioning as a better means to develop audiences.

Whatever the confluence of factors, the marketplace has become more project-oriented.

If you take a look at a number of rosters (here is one, and another one)  for artists in many presenting organizations, you’ll find the fees listed including performances as well as masterclasses and or short term residencies.  As I said, this is pretty much standard fare these days.  And it is a model that communities outside of the nonprofit world have adopted to some extent.  I think we tend to look at performance through rosy glasses and forget to understand the reality that most performers don’t or can’t make a living through performing alone.

This is sure to be a disappointment to those who want to be be the next big music star, but the phrase “starving artist” didn’t emerge ex nihilo.  Those artists who aren’t starving have found creative ways to use their skills.

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