Seven Year Series: Things You Need To Know About Open Studios

The days of the open studio. Photo by Sean McGrath.

The days of the open studio. Photo by Sean McGrath.

This is the third instalment in our blog series commemorating our seven-year-long business slog, where we share things we've learned, mistakes we've made, stuff we should have (wish we had) known at the beginning. 

Today: lessons I've learn from having an open studio, the good and the bad about public access, and thoughts on the current studio-gallery separation.

First some words on what I'm calling an open studio: a studio format that is open to the public - open hours, public access, not necessarily by appointment. This was my approach for the first five years of business. I divided my storefront space into both studio and gallery. I had (more or less) set hours during which I would be painting and the studio-gallery was open for visitors or customers.

The Good Stuff

1. Building community.

There is no better way rapidly build community and engage with it than by inviting said community into your work space. Canadian Art just published a guide to succeeding as an art dealer in a smaller city - their first tenet was "build community." I always believed that was important to show the public that art(ist) isn't necessarily lofty or inaccessible. My approach for demonstrating that was to speak directly with the audience, not mitigated by third-party gallerist or art dealer. Over time, the community will, hopefully, begin to follow and invest in your career, trust and seek your opinions. 

2. Demystifying the art process (Jones Gallery's overarching and all-important mission). 

This relates to the point above, about seeking to ground the art/artist as something/someone accessible and relatable. An open studio allows the audience to see the means of production and the process of creation. I have produced sketches, discussed composition, paint choice and demonstrated tools. I would argue that people are more likely to invest in that which they understand. 

3. Direct sales and ability to negotiate and organize commissions/projects immediately. 

The mess of an open studio wall. Photo by Sean McGrath.

The mess of an open studio wall. Photo by Sean McGrath.

The Challenges

For all the advantages, open studios can be cumbersome and inefficient. After five years with an open studio concept, we switched a more traditional separation of studio and gallery. I now produce work in a studio that is not open to the public, and my brother Caleb manages the gallery on Duke Street. This decision was rooted in the need for more productivity - now I just do not have enough time to engage fully with studio visitors and finish the work I need to do. So a division of labour was called for! Minion hired! Now we try in other ways to build community and engage with our audience (more on that in another post). For now, here are some of the challenges associated with an open studio:

The truth is: I am rubbish at sales. I will happily chatter about flaws and how I would change a piece and the process. When a customer is in the gallery, Caleb escorts me to the door... and shoves me out. 

1. The ability to engage and disengage with work quickly. In other words, be cool with interruptions. 

2. The mess. THE MESS. Art is messy. Oil paint especially is a disaster. It was always a challenge if someone wanted to purchase a finished piece from the gallery side and I was working on the studio side and covered in wet paint... Let me just say: thumbprints. 

Omg ze mess. 

Omg ze mess. 

3. Productivity. This is what eventually moved me in the closed studio direction. If I had an upcoming deadline that required eight hours of straight painting time, but a busy day of visitors, that meant working until midnight. I attempted to deal with the productivity issue by having restricted studio hours (open to the public from noon to 5pm, for instance, or one could be open on the weekends, or seasonally, etc). Solutions can be found, but this was the most daunting challenge.   

4. Skills. I don't have them all. Open studio means being all things at all times. Painter and salesperson. The truth is: I am rubbish at sales. I will happily chatter about flaws and how I would change a piece and the process. When a customer is in the gallery, Caleb escorts me to the door... and shoves me out. 

Final thoughts: the open studio was crucial for Jones Gallery at the beginning - it allowed us to build a community and also shaped the business into what it is. The principles of open studio - direct access, transparency, clarity about the process, relatability - all inform the current iteration of our business. I'm at the career stage now however where I need to get down to the slog and let my gallery manager handle the daily business affairs. 

As always, dear readers and fellow artists, please ask any questions that pop into your noggin in the comments below. Or tell me about your studio arrangements! Open studio, for or against?