With over 40 open studio events organised each year in England alone, could we be on the verge of seeing a larger market develop for original art, craft and design? Keith Hayman explores the world of open studios.
Artists and studio groups have been opening their workplaces to the public for many years. But more recently, a new generation of studio events has emerged, promoting art, selling work and connecting to wider audiences in new ways. Some of these, such as ?Hidden Art? in Hackney, Oxford Art Weeks and Cambridge Open Studios have been around for several years, and have developed significant followings amongst artists and visitors. Many though are much more recent, such as Sheffield?s ?Open Up? which started in 1998 and ?Deptford X? in 1999.
Either artist-inspired or triggered by a public agency, open studio events bring artists, designers and craftspeople together for a fixed time, usually once a year. Some events concentrate all their energy into one weekend, while others open their doors for as long as a month. The main focus might be on selling work, securing exhibitions and commissions and being discovered, but sometimes it?s on encouraging discussion about art with a new and wider public. Sometimes, as in ?hart? which took place in Hull this year, it is much more about staging commissioned works in a variety of temporary venues. For Deptford X it is a mix of elements.
We know from events such as Lincolnshire?s ?Art on the Map? and ?Hidden Art? in East London that these are important vehicles for developing learning opportunities and interest across a wide range of art and related subjects in association with schools, colleges and education authorities. And the public not only visits to talk about and buy art but some people are also stimulated to develop their own creative skills as well.
Events are also a convenient base around which to provide a wide range of training courses for the participating artists. And often they are a showcase and selling opportunity, encouraging and giving confidence to artists, designers and makers who would otherwise get relatively few chances to engage with so many people. We also know that ?hart?, Deptford X and the Wirksworth Art Trail in Derbyshire are all having a beneficial effect both on how local citizens see their own area but also on how people from other areas see them. In rural areas open studios have taken on a greater significance, not only as a focus of employment but as new visitor attractions.
Networking has also begun. In 2000 Caroline Wallace, Arts Officer for Luton Borough Council, brought together open studios event organisers. From the day conference a new network was established ? Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire and Norfolk ? which is now working with Commissions East to create the first cross-event marketing.
Current research for Yorkshire Arts is not only confirming a continuing and growing interest in Open Studios events but is also highlighting their wide ranging natures. From the 23 events which have so far returned questionnaires, over 2,500 artists, designers/makers and craftspeople participated in 2001, and over 240,000 visits were made to the different workplaces. From the sixteen events which collected sales information, there were sales of over £1.05m not allowing for commissions, orders and exhibitions. These are significant figures, especially if you take into account that events tend to underestimate their returns or simply don?t collect some information. Put alongside the growth of other artist-led or initiated events and activities, open studios mark a significant development in grassroots arts activity and complement the considerable developments taking place in our public galleries infrastructure. But there are other reasons why their growth deserves our attention.
A new backdrop
At the start of the 21st century three linked developments are changing the economic and social face of our world. One is lifelong learning. A second is the creative economy, focused on ideas and knowledge. And a third is the explosion in tastes and patterns of consumption. Bring these together and you create a very different backdrop against which to view the importance of open studios events.
Looking at open studios? brochures, there is a vast array of original talent at work. For many artists the primary interest is in making, selling and earning a living, while for others it is in developing and exhibiting their imagination/creativity, working at the edge and posing questions about how we live our lives and run our society. The events represent a very public demonstration of a countrywide creative ideas powerhouse. In a new economic age they not only stimulate the artists but encourage a much wider viewing public as well. At the same time, we may be on the verge of creating a mass market for original art, craft and design ? in ways that William Morris hoped would be the case but which may only now be approaching reality.
Support and risks
Finding out more about open studios events is an important first step in arguing a case for their systematic support, whether they are urban or rural based or a mixture of both. In my view they have the potential to act as a catalyst for all sorts of creative and learning developments directed at a mass audience ? and for artists to realise a better economic future.
As we support the growth of open studios events and the artists who take part, we also have to take steps to stop art becoming normal or safe. On one level this means we need to ensure the creative space for art-making, and encourage artists and events to continue to challenge convention. On another level, we need to do more to provide and support the places where art is produced, whether it is purpose-built studios such as the newly opened Yorkshire Artspace, Persistence Works studios in Sheffield or the various managed studio buildings in London. Such initiatives at least offer some protection against landlords and agents benefiting from the feelgood values associated with art, so that artists aren?t forced into a nomad-like existence, as area after area becomes too expensive.
Keith Hayman organises ?Open Up, the Sheffield open studios event. He is a town planner, economic development specialist and consultant, and he leads a Culture and Regeneration course at Sheffield Hallam University. t: 0114 268 5486, e: email@example.com