I paint at home, so an open studio event has always been something of a pipe dream for me. But when our local school of the arts offered instructors the opportunity to participate in a weekend-long open studio event, I jumped at the chance to (and not just because it meant a weekend away from my delightful children, although that was definitely a bonus!)
At first I thought we would just be doing painting demos to promote our own art classes, but soon found out we would also be displaying our work for sale. I dutifully packed up a condensed version of my festival display along with my demo materials and headed down to our local arts school, burning with curiosity and anticipation.
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By the end of that long, hot weekend, I had a much clearer picture of open studio events and how I’d do things differently in the future.
And, I put together 5 tips for anyone else whose about to participate in an open studio event:
1. Define what you want to accomplish
What are you hoping to get out of your open studio event? Are you looking for sales, informal feedback, or to get a few new students? Are you hoping to reach some of your repeat collectors, or to bring some artists into your space for a creative gathering? When the event is over, how will you know if it was a success?
Before our open studio event, I decided on two goals: introduce new people to my work and promote the classes at our school. At the end of the weekend, I felt that those two goals had been accomplished with the visitors who stopped at our school along the tour.
NOTE: By participating in a group setting, I didn’t have to do much logistical planning. If you’re holding your own event, you’ll have to factor in times and dates, how to invite people, and how you want to display your work and promote yourself as an artist. Having preset goals before you begin planning will help you make those decisions and give you a way to measure the outcome.
2. Know your elevator pitch
The event has started, and people are wandering in, ready to size you up and form an impression. What do you want them to know about you as an artist?
Whether in your own studio or participating in a group setting, it’s a good idea to have your “elevator pitch” ready. In other words, how do you sum up your artwork for new viewers?
To start, choose to display artworks that showcase your signature style and be ready to sum up your medium/inspiration/unique approach in a few sentences. This is your invitation to let people get to know you and your work.
Of course, this is just the first step. You can still share your more experimental pieces as you make personal connections, or when a visitor shows an interest. It’s kind of like making new friends: first make the acquaintance and put your best foot forward, then let the deeper connections develop with those who are interested.
3. Put yourself in your visitors’ shoes
As the artist, you control the setting in this situation, so make it inviting. Think about people physically moving about your space (make sure it’s free of tripping hazards) and where their eyes will go. Make sure there is ventilation, good light, and a minimum of dust or residue if possible (or provide fair warning to those who are sensitive to such things).
If you expect children to be around, do an extra “safety sweep” of your space—don’t forget to make it comfortable for your elderly attendees too!
In an open studio environment, people will want to see how you work, so have your creative materials on full display. Invite people to hold brushes you like to use, or let them feel some paper or canvas. Making art is a kinesthetic experience for many of us, and letting people touch the materials gives people a chance to share that.
When the circumstances allow it, you may want to even set up a creative sign-in space to let people leave their mark on something if they get inspired!
4. Present yourself as a professional
As people wandered in and out of our classrooms, I was impressed by how much the artist interactions with the public differed from some of the more sales-driven events I’ve experienced.
The artists were friendly, knowledgeable, and encouraging. They were genuinely interested in making the visitors feel welcome and included in the process of making art. Even when the occasional grumbling viewers came along, they were met with a sense of humor and a smile.
Of course, this may have been because—as instructors—we’re all used to encouraging reluctant artists. I’ve written before about not bringing bad vibes into your booth at festivals, and you definitely don’t want them in your workspace either.
I would also suggest that if you are painting a demo, to work on something with which you are confident and comfortable.
Have you ever stopped by a display window at a confectionery or bakery and watched someone in a chef hat cheerfully assemble delicious-looking food? There’s a reason the display window doesn’t show the full toil and fury of the kitchen.
Artists will immediately relate to sweating out a painting you’ve been struggling with, but studio visitors might not. Show them the joyful, rhythmic part of making your art—you can always share the occasional struggle on your blog.
5. Be open to the learning experience of the event
At the end of our open studio tour it was over ninety degrees, and the turnout on our second day had been minimal. I was exhausted but had thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Thanks to being free of childcare duty for two days, I had finished off about four paintings that had been languishing on my easel for some time. I got to meet the other instructors and see their amazing work up close. We had a play/work table set up in the middle of our room, and at one point all of the artists were sitting together doodling and laughing.
I got to try shibori and watch a raku firing, and discuss pastel and paper brands. We even had a young bird fly into the school, and immediately mobilized to help it out as quickly and gently as possible (the sensitive, animal-loving artist stereotype was on full display!)
The setup and breakdown, though nowhere near as rough as a festival, was the only difficult part of the weekend. Even with that factored in, I would most likely participate in a group event again. I am definitely more motivated now to get my own studio space for future open studio events—this experience reminded me how much I enjoy letting others see my work in person, and the unique connection I get to make with people when they take time to look at my artwork.
If you’re debating holding an open studio event yourself, I say try it! However it goes, you’ll learn something from it!