Reflections on the impact of Covid -19 on international arts residencies with Res-Artis.

\ Education \ Sustainability

Avery Averpol, Digital Editor (intern), UCL European Institute, and Dr Jo Townshend, Director CVAN London, reflect on the impact of Covid -19 on international arts residencies with Res-Artis, and draw upon the example of London’s visual arts to produce policy recommendations for a resilient arts sector.

Historically, pandemics have preceded renaissance—languishing and upheaval logically giving way to social change and inspiration. As we look now to the post-Covid-19 world, we must reckon with the current, rather bleak status of the cultural sector before we can expect such a renaissance.

Creative industries are some of the hardest hit by Covid closures, furloughs, and loss of revenue, and have struggled immensely despite government support. A collaborative research project between UCL and Res Artis has focussed on the effects of the pandemic on one subsection of this industry—that of arts residencies.

This ongoing research has, through two (of a planned three) surveys of artists and residency providers in more than 50 countries, yielded alarming results about the financial and mental health impact of the pandemic on artist mobility, and the dearth of support available for arts organisations and individuals.

The arts residency sector, dependant on global mobility to thrive, is the perfect storm of being impacted by Covid. Not only have international travel opportunities been quashed, but organisations who host residencies (museums, cultural organisations, etc.) have been forced to suspend operations. Our first survey found that one in 10 arts residency providers was forced to close indefinitely.

Though many of these artists are full-time creatives, 65% of artists surveyed between November 2020 and January 2021 said they have been forced to pursue work outside of the arts sector to support themselves, and 68% said they have not been able to access emergency financial support, either due to ineligibility or lack of opportunities. Even where individuals have received funding, many indicated it was insufficient. Wrote one respondent: “The government funding is a third of what my salary was. All other grants I applied for denied my application.”

Without attention to the arts in Covid recovery plans, many areas with thriving arts economies risk a cultural talent drain. In our most recent survey, 12.2% of artists said they have considered leaving the arts sector permanently. This was even higher among emerging artists – 18% said they have considered leaving the sector. One such artist described their experience as an artist struggling during the pandemic as “embarrassing and heartwrenching”, saying: “The incredible hardship is too heavy. It’s too consuming. I make the best work when safe and secure within the support of arts organizations, and this has been stripped.”

What we lose when residencies are cancelled

While arts residencies may not get the same headlines as West End or Broadway closures, it is a globally represented sector central to the life and work of many artists. The cancellation or postponement of more than half of residencies is a significant blow to the livelihood of many artists, dancers, and authors, and to the wider creative ecosystem.

When artists cannot attend residencies, they lose income and opportunities to network, sell their work, and collaborate with other artists. Nearly half of artist respondents to our first survey (47%) said the cancellation of residencies has significantly or critically impacted their finances.

The mental health impacts for artists have been severe. In our second survey, 88% of artist respondents said their mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, with 57% saying is has affected their inspiration and ability to produce new works.

“My ability to go out and be inspired by life and the living of it has been literally shut down and has isolated me from the world that inspires me”, wrote one respondent.

When going digital is not an option

Many industries have coped with the effects of the pandemic by moving online. In the arts world, virtual exhibitions and livestreamed performances have become been a metaphorical lifeline for many patrons who feel isolated without this access.

But this shift to digital is not a viable alternative for the arts residency sector.

Both artists and residency providers made clear that this sector cannot easily adapt to a virtual or remote model. Fewer than a quarter (23%) of residency providers are preparing for the possibility of virtual residencies in the coming year, with only 7% actively offering such opportunities to applicants.

“The camaraderie of being in a space with other artists is the best reason to go [on residences]”, one respondent wrote. “The energy would not travel over the internet, and would dissipate when the laptop is closed.”

Cultural recovery and renewal – A London case study

With the above in mind, the question shifts now from ‘How badly have these industries suffered?’ to ‘How do we ensure cultural renewal is part of Covid recovery?’

In 2020, the UK government initiated a £1.7billion recovery package to support the arts through the pandemic. Our survey demonstrates that the arts, through the receipt of emergency funding, have been innovative and responsive to their stakeholders, audiences, and community needs; swiftly pivoting to digital with access to archives and new creative content. Organisations have designed experiences for engagement through technologies whilst managing closing and reopening with specialist modifications to prioritise safety and wellbeing.

However, there are gaps in the support for independent practitioners and specifically disabled, neuro-divergent artists, Black artists and artists of colour, as highlighted to the Chancellor by the London Contemporary Visual Arts Network (CVAN) in July 2020. Exclusionary practices expand inequalities, and there are growing concerns regarding sector-wide talent drain, including recent graduates struggling to find their first job.

A discussion with CVAN London provided the most recent feedback on the impact of Covid-19. The prolonged experience of the pandemic comes with increasing fatigue and instability for artists when galleries cannot meet their scheduled obligations to hold residencies and are concerned about their long-term international relationships. Residencies and international programmes are impacted by travel restrictions, which threaten relationships with funders. Furthermore, the loss of free movement due to Brexit has led to increased demand for issuing talent visas. Together, Brexit and Covid may force a risk-averse outlook.

When organisations have been able to maintain physical residencies, it’s been difficult to provide pastoral care for new and temporary members of staff especially curators and artists of colour, raising critical questions of equality and inclusion.

Policy and fiscal recommendations

The following recommendations aim to bolster the survival and stability of the sector, moving beyond a status quo reopening to deliver an innovative post-Covid future.

  • Easing funding application and evaluation methods – Accessible and inclusive funding application processes and targeted financial support through studio and gallery funding schemes would positively impact freelance artists, cultural producers and organisations.
  • Innovative funding evaluation data collection – Simplifying accountability processes would allow organisation leaders to focus on the development of working in the new post-Covid, post-Brexit economy.
  • Innovative taxation relief – A tax relief focused to encourage residencies and exhibitions to counter the talent drain would attract local and global talent and activate ambitions of building back better, and reduce the negative Brexit impact on the sector.
  • Long-term strategy for talent development – Maintaining London and the UK’s cultural leadership and vibrant creative industries, worth £111.7bn, requires new policy for arts education to provide a commitment to a balanced curriculum (11-16) and support careers in the arts. Secured arts undergraduate and graduate funding and innovative funding mechanisms will ensure diverse and inclusive cultural leadership.

There is a need to think differently to create pandemic-proof models of operation that enable, not hinder, artist mobility. Cultural renewal can also be an integral part of economic rebuilding, through models that are mutually beneficial to the artist community and the economy.

As we prepare a third survey on the long-term effects of the pandemic on arts residencies, we hope to glean information that can help artists, arts organisations, funders and policymakers answer these questions.


Our thanks go to Florian Mussgnug, Professor of Comparative Literature and Italian Studies, UCL, UCL I&E. CVAN London and Res-Artis.


You can read the full survey reports and learn more about how Res Artis is supporting the arts residencies sector during Covid-19 on their website.

Mind the Gap: Designing residencies for everyone (6-9 September 2023) will bring the international artist residency community together in the UK for the very first time, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Res Artis and 50 years of Acme.

This year’s event will help chart a future for impactful residency opportunities, with a focus on optimism and practical working solutions for issues facing the sector.