by Christine Hopkins SGFA
Do a google search for ‘Open Studios’ and you will find a comprehensive list from Bedfordshire to York; towns, cities and regions whose artists are linked together with one aim – to make art accessible to as many people as possible. Open Studios, Open Houses, Arts Trails and Arts Weeks happen every summer all over the country and from the perspective of an artist are a chance to show one’s work to whoever comes in through the door. This may be someone who has seen your tiny thumbnail image in a glossy brochure, come by recommendation from another studio, or is just a curious neighbour or friend. Perhaps they were attracted by the balloons or bunting, or brightly coloured arrows that you’ve distributed around your neighbourhood, or perhaps they’ve visited before and wanted to come to see what is new.
Some of us operate as solo artists, others group together to offer an alternative experience. ‘Studios’ can be purpose built work/gallery spaces, front rooms, dining rooms, sheds and outhouses. I’ve even bought work myself from a downstairs loo. We open up our workplaces to the curious; happy to show work in progress, allow visitors to watch us at work, and talk about our processes and inspiration. For a visitor we try to ensure that the experience is as different as possible from a commercial gallery, giving us the opportunity to make direct contact with someone who will (hopefully) buy a piece of art to take home, or even just a greetings card. However, whilst sales are an important part of our income, it’s about so much more than that. We work alone most of the time, and I’m sure most of us enjoy talking about our work. The feedback that we get is so encouraging – either verbal, or a lovely comment in the visitors’ book. The best visitors are those who take time to look properly at the work, and ask about techniques or ideas. My least favourite are those who either rush in and straight out again, or those who arrive just as I’m thinking about closing for the day, then stay for an hour talking about themselves. In Surrey there is a ‘loyalty’ scheme for anyone who has been to four or more studios, collecting a signature from the artist as proof. Once or twice I’ve had ‘signature hunters’ whose sole aim is to get the back of their book signed.
Whoever your visitors are, you have to be on duty for several hours each day, ready with a smile and a cup of tea, jelly beans, biscuits or mints, and put on the act of being a successful artist for a few hours. Pretending to know what you are talking about can be an awful strain. However most visitors are utterly charming, ask insightful questions and are just thrilled to have a small introduction into your creative process. They think that artistic clutter is meaningful rather than untidy, and if you appear scatty or too talkative it can all be blamed on your ‘creative personality’.
I’ve been taking part in my local Surrey Open Studios every year since 2005, and each year is a different experience. The event has clashed with Fathers’ Day, world cup football, royal birthdays, my own birthday and with other Open Studios events taking place in nearby regions. One year I had the Olympic torch passing the end of my road and another time there was a cycle race whizzing by. The weather can affect visitor numbers dramatically – 2016 was the wettest and coldest June in memory, and in some years the heat has been almost unbearable. The Surrey event takes place in early June each year, but events can be found round the country at all times of the year, and sometimes there will be a Christmas ‘pop-up’ fair, a preview exhibition or other communal event associated with the main summer opening.
Before we can welcome any visitors, we have to clean and tidy the studio, do a health and safety assessment, display hazard warnings on sharp tools, and remove spiders to a quieter place. It’s necessary to plan what work will be on display, and what to work on during the event. Sometimes it can be a productive fortnight, with several new pieces done from start to finish, and occasionally painted, framed and hanging on the wall, ready for sale. The goal is to end the event with empty wall space and lots of new contacts and even new friends.
At last, at the end of two weeks you can shut the door for the final time, pack away the bunting and return the dining chairs to their rightful place. The spiders all come out of hiding, determined to recreate the webs that you so thoughtlessly brushed away. All the clutter that you tidied away into the spare bedroom can begin to creep back downstairs, and suddenly there are no more nice ‘visitor’ biscuits to snack on. For about 24 hours you exhale sighs of relief that the hard work is all over and that you have the house back to yourself. But, you wake up on the following day feeling unexpectedly flat, and soon you are full of ideas for next year, and can’t wait for the merry-go-round to start up again so that you can jump on for the ride of your life.
It would be hard to do this without an understanding family offering support and advice, climbing ladders and nailing up the bunting, making endless tea and coffee, and not minding that their lives are disrupted too – thank you.
The individual artist is just the top of the iceberg, resting on all the hard work that goes on beneath. Without the hard work and enthusiasm of everyone at the Surrey Open Studios office, our East area co-ordinator, the support of the New Ashgate Gallery and media partners Surrey Life magazine, none of this would get going in the first place.
Artists are asked to submit a statistical return and evaluation at the end of the event – in 2016 the Surrey event 305 artists attracted an estimated 15,700 visitors which resulted in sales worth £240,000. This event is a big boost to the local arts community – artists, framers, greetings card printers all benefit directly, and there are many indirect benefits too. Artists gain commissions, pick up teaching or demonstrating bookings, and build a network of like-minded people who may go on to organise other events and opportunities.
Find out more on www.surreyopenstudios.org.uk, or search for UK Open Studios 2016 to find a comprehensive list of events across the UK.
Find out more about Surrey Life magazine: http://www.surreylife.co.uk/home
Find out more about the New Ashgate Gallery: http://www.newashgate.org.uk
About the author: Christine Hopkins SGFA is a painter/printmaker who has been a member of the Society of Graphic Fine Art since 2007, and served on the governing Council from 2009, acting as Honorary Secretary until her retirement in 2015.
Footnote: As a result of visitor votes during the Open Studios event, Christine Hopkins has been shortlisted for the Surrey Artist of the Year seven times, being awarded runner-up in 2015. In 2016 she was among the four most popular artists in Surrey, and will go forward to the final whose results will be announced in November 2016. This takes place at the New Ashgate Gallery, Farnham, and more details can be found here: http://www.newashgate.org.uk/whats-on
Upcoming SGFAMember Open Studio Events:
Bridport Open Studios: SGFAPP David Brooke
August 20 -29 2016
Somerset Art Works – Various locations across Somerset including SGFA members Anne Carpenter, Myrtle Pizzey and Chris Lee
September 17 – October 2
Wandsworth Artists Open Studios– Venetia Norris ASGFA
1/2 and 8/9 October