Artists and writers in residence

4th February 2005 at 00:00
It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. Film director Peter Jackson worked on his Lord of the Rings trilogy for seven years. And Philip Larkin published a collection of poetry only every decade.

Creativity, it seems, can't always be rushed. Which is why more and more schools are taking time to work on long-term projects with artists in residence. Squeezing a few extra bodies into the staffroom or tinkering with the timetable can be a small price to pay for getting in step with contemporary dance or shuffling your stanzas with a professional poet. But just what's involved with setting up a residency? And where can you go to get help?

What is a residency?

Having an artist, or a group of artists, in school to do a half-day session is a workshop; working with them on more sustained projects over weeks, terms or even years is a residency. Depending on who you choose and how you agree to work, a residency can involve anything from developing an on-site sculpture to making a film or creating an opera.

Does size matter?

While an afternoon's workshop may seem a lot less hassle, the longer the project, the greater the possibilities. "Smash-and-grab workshops can feel a bit token. They can be refreshing, but you get much better results if you build up a rapport," suggests Emma Spurgin Hussey, artistic co-director of Bedlam Theatre Company in Cornwall. This is particularly true of art forms that might take a bit of getting used to. A half day of contemporary dance, for example, is hardly enough to stop the giggles, let alone break into a sweat. "Short workshops can be fraught with the newness of the art form, and it's sometimes not until you get beyond the initial barriers that work really begins to develop," says Rachel Smith, education officer at Scottish Dance Theatre. "On a longer residency, dance becomes a part of pupils'

lives. We can get beyond first impressions. So there's a knock-on effect; they are more likely to continue their interest in dance and to become more culturally aware. "

But I teach science

Art and drama classes need not get all the fun. A variety of recent projects have highlighted the benefits of bringing arts and science together. For example, at the radiology and physics unit of the Institute of Child Health at University College London, the "Strangebedfellows" project linked sculptor Marion Kalmus with neurophysiologist Mark Lythgoe to produce a hybrid that was artwork and scientific research. Many schools, too, have developed ways of using artists across the curriculum. "It's not about putting an apple on a table and drawing it. That would be too easy," says Alessio Antoniolli, residency co-ordinator for Gasworks, a company that has artists' studios and a gallery in London as well as a flourishing residency programme. "It's about introducing lateral thinking and cultural exchange. And that can take place in any subject."

At Birchfields primary school in Manchester, a revised curriculum introduced last September has artists in residence at its core. Making everything from Indian music to films, the children can now take part in cross-curriculum projects throughout the year. "You just have to think differently," advises Julie Howell, performing arts co-ordinator. "You have to get used to the idea that you can use history time with arts time, and that's fine as long as there's an outcome for both."

Good for them

Residencies seem to be good all round. They encourage creativity in the classroom, offer new ways of looking at the curriculum and can be particularly good at unlocking the potential of pupils who find more traditional teaching styles a turn-off. "A good residency shifts the world," claims Alison Barry, education and youth director for Unicorn Theatre for Children in London. Collaborations between artists with disparate skills - perhaps bringing together a painter with a dancer, for example - can be especially effective. "It helps children to see the connections between art forms and opens different doors for different children," says Ms Barry. "And it shows there's more than one way to express an idea; that it's OK to think differently. It encourages them to ask big questions."

Sometimes there may even be knock-on effects. Never considered a career as an opera singer? Then perhaps you didn't have the right role model. "As soon as a soprano sings, children are gobsmacked," says Simon Milton of English National Opera's Baylis education programme. "They're intrigued.

And they go on to realise that these are ordinary people making a living in an extraordinary way - and that it might be a career for them, too."

A good residency also gives artists the opportunity to focus on their own work. "It can be a valuable research opportunity," says Mark Segal, director of ArtSway, which runs contemporary visual arts projects, including residencies, in the New Forest. "It's a chance for an artist to develop and explore his or her own practice."

And good for you

It's not just the artists who get the chance for some professional development. "Teachers can get scared about working with artists. It seems an added burden in an already hectic life," says Alessio Antoniolli. "But it can be extremely rewarding." In Hampshire, Yateley school, a specialist arts college since 2002, has already welcomed theatre and dance companies in residence as well as individual dancers and actors. "It does take a lot of time to make it work," says Nickie Harrison, head of drama, "But once you've got it organised the benefits outweigh all that. It's not just that these performers have advanced skills that we don't have. It's also good for us to sit back and see how our classes respond. It gives you an opportunity to look at what you do objectively, and find new ways of doing it."

The Poetry Society is keen that residencies should be seen as opportunities for staff as much as students. As part of its Poetry Class scheme it has a training team of poets who work with teachers inside and outside the classroom. "Teachers were expressing concerns about struggling with teaching poetry," explains Frank Geary, education manager. "By getting poets to work directly and creatively with teachers, we try to give them confidence and new tools for working with classes."

Counting the costs

But all this creativity comes at a cost. This can vary from several hundred pounds for a short-term project with an individual artist to thousands of pounds for more ambitious projects: buying in the full company of the Scottish Dance Theatre for just one week's residency, for example, could set you back pound;9,000. It's best to be realistic about fees; residencies are not a way of getting cheap labour, and the better funded your project, the more likely everyone is to get worthwhile results. A useful guideline is the Arts Council's recommended rate for artists, which currently stands at pound;175 per artist per day, but if there's something you fancy but think you can't afford, try talking it through.

"There are always options," says Ms Smith at Scottish Dance Theatre. "The costs can sound horrifying if you don't know what they entail, but we can negotiate with schools and find solutions. It might mean thinking creatively about the format or linking with other activities in the area."

Reaping the rewards

There may be ways of raising money to help. Local arts organisations and your regional office of the Arts Council should be able to give advice on what kind of funding might be available: it could be anything from a local authority scheme to a grant from a charitable trust. One of the tasks of Creative Partnerships, for example, administered by the Arts Council but set up jointly in 2003 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Skills, is to help find a way through the maze of funding opportunities so schools and artists can come together on long-term projects.

Unfortunately, all this takes time. Which means not only planning well in advance, but also considering the workload of staff managing the residency.

At Birchfields primary, Ms Howell has been freed from classroom teaching for two years to develop the school's programme, and admits that without that it would have been "very difficult".

Another option might be to draft in some extra help with the form-filling.

The PTA at Belper Long Row school in Derbyshire took responsibility for raising funds for a year-long sculpture residency last year, applying to its local Arts Council office for support. "The application was much simpler than we thought it would be," explains Shelley Caines, a member of the arts committee that developed the project. "It was hard work. But it was fun." So much fun that the PTA has promised to organise a residency for the school every three years.

A risky business?

"The key to a good residency is finding the right person for your project," says Frank Geary at the Poetry Society. But how do you get the matchmaking right? "That's what we're here for," he explains, suggesting schools get in touch as early as possible with an expert arts organisation. "We can match someone's expertise with the expectations of the school."

Having found your artist, you might like to give some thought to the brief.

Too vague and you risk misunderstandings and disappointment. Too tight and the artist may feel restricted. "It's a question of getting a balance between what the artist wants to do and the outcomes the school would like," says ArtSway's Mark Segal. "You need both parties to be interested in investigating the ideas." He suggests creating an open-ended brief, asking artists to make proposals around themes, but with an eye on the curriculum. "That way you get more than just an artist delivering a visual aid. You get a creative process, which might, in the end, be more valuable than the outcome. But you need to trust the artist. And there is risk; that's the nature of creativity."

From signing up to cleaning up

But there are ways of reducing risks. "Schools need to be aware of the pitfalls," says Ann Orfali, author of the Arts Council's guide to best practice Artists Working in Partnership with Schools. "And the best way of doing that is to go through everything step by step and make sure everyone knows what they are doing." Which means, among other things, putting together a clear contract; checking your insurance cover; making sure the artist has had police checks and asking for a risk assessment; getting the residency into the timetable; arranging classroom support; drumming up parent enthusiasm and warning the cleaners and buildings' supervisor about the probable mess. "That's what our guidelines are for," explains Ms Orfali. "They bring together all the ad hoc information in an easy-to-use form. So you can be sure you've covered everything."

It takes two to tango

Though it might seem tempting to find a quiet corner in the staffroom to work it all out, it's wise to involve the artists in the process as much as possible. They'll probably have helpful hints from previous residencies and it should raise any issues that need ironing out. "At the beginning of a residency, I set up a hands-on workshop with all the staff after school.

It's a bit of fun. There's usually lots of wine and cakes. But it means everyone knows who I am, what I'm doing and what I'm expecting of the school," explains Coralie Turpin, a textile artist and sculptor. And what does she expect? "A proper space to work. Often I'm stuck in part of a corridor, or, worse, moved around from one place to another. It shows a lack of respect."

Depending on the type of residency, volume of space may not be everything: some schools may have huge halls, but with hard floors unsuitable for dance, for example. Getting these practical basics sorted in advance can save a lot of trouble later on. "It's also important to have a single member of staff co-ordinating - and that the person lets other teachers know," continues Ms Turpin. "Otherwise I end up running round looking for children, which is a waste of my time." Anything else? "Overalls. Oh, and it's nice if someone makes you a cup of tea on your first morning. It makes you feel welcome."

Where can I get help?

A range of organisations can offer advice on hosting a residency. Unless you know the ropes, probably the best first port of call is your regional office of the Arts Council. There will be specialist staff for all the art forms who have information about artists working in your area, examples of previous projects and details of funding opportunities. They can also put you in touch with your local Creative Partnerships schemes.

But there are other routes: Long Row PTA, for example, put an advert in The Stage magazine and was delighted with the response. Many cities have open studios weekends, when you can visit local artists and talk to them about your ideas. Or if you know of a theatre, dance or music company you want to work with, try approaching them through their education staff. But getting the support of a specialist arts organisation may be just the thing to give your residency wings. "We can help with materials, scheduling and fundraising, so the final project is probably much bigger than the school could have managed on its own resources alone," says Gasworks'

MrAntoniolli. "Lots of residencies fall by the wayside because schools are overstretched and under-resourced. We have experience managing big projects, and that can be the difference between success and failure."

Main text: Jacqueline Yallop

Photographs: Kate Sutherland; Tom FinnieAtom

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

Next week: the school day

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