>Last month, the Brickbottom Artists Association. of which I am a member, held their annual Open Studios event, in conjunction with Joy Street Studios, just up the street. As always, it was a swingin’ shindig with two days worth of free art for the viewing and buying, artists to meet and greet, demos, classes, and performances.
I did not show this year at Open Studios. I’ll try to act cool about it. Not showing gave me the chance to tour and connect with my colleagues, which I don’t get to do when I am showing. Watching from the sidelines made me realize that, like everything else in life, there are tricks to getting the most out of events like this.
Open studios events are great markets where fans of art can buy original works direct from the artists who make them, sometimes at a discount. Many artists rely on open studios events for direct sales. Most of my own sales since moving to Massachusetts have been through such events. But the art market is unstable, with people sometimes eager to buy something special and, other times, reluctant to commit. Also, some artists are better suited to this kind of exhibiting than others.
As Laurence Sterne put it, “Each man will report the fair as his own market has gone in it.” The contrast between good years and bad years, between artists whose work moves and others who make few sales, is, I think, why there is constant debate among artists about whether events like open studios are worth the cost of participating in them. It is all too common for an artist to lose money on open studios.
I say open studios are absolutely worth the cost, time and effort, and every working artist should do them at least once in a while. But not necessarily for making sales. Rather, I, and many others, see open studios events as prime marketing moments. It’s my belief that nobody can sell an artist better than the artist him- or herself. People like to meet artists, to talk to the people behind the works. They like to see the process in action, via demonstrations, presentations, classes. If there is something interactive they can participate in, even better.
I learned that while working a couple of summers at Shelburne Museum in Vermont. It was one thing to stand around the galleries and wait for someone to ask a question. It was a whole different game to staff the demonstration buildings and spend the day doing blacksmithing and weaving and running the printing presses, giving away souvenir s-hooks and nails, or picking some embarrassed but eager kid to play the printer’s devil and help run the hand press, or let some amazed visitor try their hand at spinning and gasp at the thread coming out of their fingers though they couldn’t figure out how it was happening.
The flow of visitors through the exhibition galleries tended to be pretty constant from what I saw, but one senior staffer told me that a good demonstrator at one of the interactive buildings could create a bottleneck of visitors lingering in the site for thirty to forty minutes, with good retention of what they saw and did there.
I do the Brickbottom Open Studios for the chance to connect with the public and put my name in their minds, my card in their pockets, their names on my email list.
I try to run my space like one of the demonstration buildings at the museum, with plenty to look at, plenty to buy, and, most important of all, something fun to do. I’ll present an interactive art installation, or I’ll make the art I am offering for sale right there in front of the visitors.
This past November, the artists who did that sort of thing seemed to have the most interested and attentive crowds in their spaces. The portrait artist who had a model sitting during the open hours. The glass makers who gave demos and tutorials. The photographers who told the stories of their images and explained their processes (and who had to give those in-depth presentations over and over during the two-day event).
mechanial confections for a visitor.
I will be doing the Brickbottom’s Open Studios next year. I’m looking forward to inventing an amazing new project for people to play with, one that will put my card in their pockets, their names on my email list, and maybe even prompt enough sales to pay for the weekend. But with or without sales, open studios events are money well spent for an artist’s career.