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The most influential gig in style right now is the artist-in-residence. As luxury brands, from whisky distillers to fashion labels, amp up their support of artists, Nancy Won asks their creative collaborators what it takes to make a brand-sponsored residency work

It's one day after Emma Hart's return home to London after a six-month residency in Italy and the 42-year-old artist is enthusiastically telling me about her experience observing a family therapy session at the Mara Selvini Palazzoli Clinic in Milan. The family members were asked to take turns posing each other into gestures and scenarios that physically expressed their emotional state. They had to hold the positions for 30 seconds and then talk about it. "It was incredibly powerful," says Hart. "When you take on a position for that amount of time, you really feel it." For Hart, who uses clay and sculpture to explore relationships between people, it was beyond illuminating. She spent two months at the clinic before moving on to visit other galleries and artist studios, eventually spending three months at Museo Carlo Zauli in Faenza, a world-renowned centre for the ceramic arts.

If this residency sounds unusually well-tailored to Hart's creative interests, that's because it was. The six month program was custom built for her through the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Launched in 2007, the program is fully funded by the Italian fashion house, and is one of the best examples of brand-hosted artist in residence programs – a type of partnership that has exploded in recent years.

London-based multi-disciplinary artist Emma Hart won the Max Mara Art Prize for Women for her arresting sculpture work; her win resulted in a six-month residency in Italy.

"As a fashion company, it's important for us to create a conversation about creativity, craftsmanship and inspiration," says Maria Giulia Maramotti, Max Mara's director of retail for North America and the granddaughter of Achille Maramotti, the company's founder. "My grandfather has been a collector since the sixties, so art has always been an important part of who we are as a family and our DNA as a brand."

Luxury conglomerate LVMH launched its own artist in residence program earlier this year as part of its Métiers d'Art, a program that sets out to support and invest in the world's best artisan suppliers. The first residency was awarded to French artist Thomas Mailaender, who spent six months at Tanneries Roux in southeastern France and created 30 individual works, each printed on leather using techniques employed at the tannery.

Whisky maker Glenfiddich meanwhile, hosts a summer residency at its distillery in Dufftown, Scotland, where artists from around the world are invited to take inspiration from the history, heritage and people of the Highlands. Red Bull's House of Art in Detroit, which has hosted local artists in its renovated loft space since 2011, expanded its program this year to include artists from across the U.S.

And while artist residencies aren't exactly new territory for hotels (Claude Monet was the first artist in residence at The Savoy in 1901), the concept has evolved in recent years. The Ace Hotel in New York invites a different artist to stay every Sunday night. Fashion illustrator David Downton has been artist-in-residence at Claridge's in London for going on five years. He stays at the hotel whenever he needs a London crash pad (about once a week), and in exchange draws portraits of VIP guests (subjects have included designers Alber Elbaz, Diane Von Furstenberg and Christian Louboutin) when they're in town. More recently, Oetker Collection, which owns eight hotels around the world, inked a deal with Australian fashion illustrator Megan Hess, who will travel to all the properties and create a portfolio of drawings for the hotel group.

From Red Bull, which hosts artists in a loft space in Detroit, to Glenfiddich’s residency program at its distillery in Scotland, beverage brands are also keen to capitalize on the cachet of artist partnerships.

The arrangements for artist residencies vary – there are ones where the artist pays to stay somewhere, ones where he or she is invited and costs are covered, and ones involving an open-call application process – but in general, the idea is to give artists space to think and develop their work, free from the constraints of daily life. "Traditionally they're hosted by educational or artistic institutions but if you think about where they probably originated,

I would suspect it came from patronage, which does link to these new programs with corporate bodies," says Cate Rimmer, who, as director of the gallery at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, also runs the school's Audain Distinguished Artist in Residence initiative. "I think the challenge is really about the expectations" she says. "Obviously it's great to stay at a stunning hotel; who wouldn't want to do that? But if the expectations are such that it would be stressful to try and fulfill them, then that's not doing much for the artist in the long run."

For illustrators like Downton and Hess, their residencies with Claridge's and Oetker Collection have given them the opportunity to do more of what they love, gain exposure and become part of the legacies of these iconic hotels. "Claridge's has always had extraordinary guests – Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis – all of them have stayed there, and there are photographs of them all over the hotel," says Downton. "Now, instead of photographing people, I draw them. I feel very privileged to be a part of it." Hess, meanwhile, who has illustrated campaigns for Prada and live-sketched for Dior, is embracing the opportunity to be a fly-on-the-wall. "For me, it's really about capturing little moments and the spirit of each hotel in a way that photography can't," she tells me. "That's what was so appealing to me about the collaboration – it was very open for me to discover and be creative and draw whatever inspired me."

For brands, the benefit of hosting artists in residence programs isn't strictly about the bottom line. "It's a question of sharing values," says Philippe Meunier, chief creative officer and co-founder of Sid Lee, a creative agency headquartered in Montreal. "If I'm Red Bull for example, I might want to sponsor or support an artist who is pushing forward performance art. So yes, it's about image but at the same time, we live in a content world and it's about creating a flow of conversation."

Renowned illustrator David Downton has been the artist-in-residence for Claridge’s in London for five years, and he’s tasked with capturing the hotel’s famed guests.

The key factor for success is freedom, says Meunier. "It's one thing to put money on the table, but artists are artists, they want to be free. You can't put an artist in a box and tell him what to do."

Which is precisely what Max Mara gets right. "There was absolutely no pressure from Max Mara whatsoever," Hart tells me. "They formulated a six-month project based on my proposal but I could have done anything I wanted." Her culminating work will be exhibited in a solo show in May 2017, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and will be acquired by the Collezione Maramotti, the private contemporary art collection owned by Max Mara in Reggio Emilia.

"When a corporately sponsored residency feels more arms-length, and is understanding of the artist's production, that feels more respectful to me," says Rimmer. "You can see that they're trying to be supportive of the artist's work and not just using them as a marketing tool."