Leading Article: Two-way traffic between artist and public

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WITH hundreds of creative people, ranging from painters and poets to composers and musicians, 'in residence' at institutions up and down the country, it is odd that someone has only just thought of providing an airport with its own such resident talent. All credit therefore to the British Airports Authority (BAA) and South-East Arts, who have hatched the scheme. The artist selected from 250-odd applicants will receive a pounds 3,000 fee to spend three months depicting life at Gatwick. The results will be shown at a new gallery in the south terminal - and, no doubt, will be available for judicious use in BAA's publicity material.

The concept of the artist/writer/musician/composer in residence is easily mocked, but experience suggests that it has flourished and multiplied precisely because it has proved its value. The commercial setting of the Gatwick scheme is atypical. Most are associated with institutions, usually universities, hospitals, prisons and the like. Some are really a form of fellowship. They offer the beneficiary a social context in which to work, providing a safe income for a fixed period, enabling him or her to work undisturbed by financial pressures. Others are closer to social work or therapy: the creative person is expected to interact with people, often those confined to a prison or hospital. A pioneer of the first sort was the National Gallery in London, which appointed Maggi Hambling its artist in residence in 1980. Trinity College, Cambridge, has been well to the fore in the writer-in-residence stakes. There was a jolly row there in 1987 when the rap and Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah sought in vain to win election to the prestigious post. The present incumbent is the Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri - though the title has been upgraded to that of Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts.

One of the most imaginative in this category is Durham Cathedral's residency programme. This provides an artist with university accommodation, a magnificent studio within the chaplaincy, an adequate income, an optional day a week teaching, full access to all parts of England's finest cathedral and, at the end of the academic year, an exhibition at a local gallery.

Being 'in residence' in some institutions can be gruelling. When interviewed for a stint at HM Prison Gartree, one writer, Kate Pullinger, was asked: 'How would you feel about being in a room with 10 murderers?' She found the psychological trauma of some of the men's lives hard to bear, but emerged - like many other creative people who have worked in comparable institutions such as psychiatric or long-stay hospitals - feeling she had helped the prisoners and enriched her own knowledge of human nature. Two-way traffic is the essence of this kind of residency: a suitable thought for the eventual artist in Gatwick's south terminal.