Saturday, 31 May 2014

Mixed feelings

Halfway through another year of artist open studios, I must confess to mixed feelings about what has become a bit of an institution. When Grapevine first opened some twelve years ago we showed work by a relatively small number of artists, of whom a surprisingly high percentage were from Brighton and Hove. Now this is where, to my mind, the open studio idea really began to take off. A compact, intense urban environment housing large numbers of artists - and it was a prime visitor destination. The pluses are obvious - lots of choice and variety and relatively close together. With coming of area trails aimed at walking a few yards from one delight to another its success and appeal seemed assured.

However, talking to artists, many even then had their misgivings. One year was good and exciting. Two years was reassuring - the visitors came back. But after that? Why did these people come? Were they seriously looking at the art? Or were they more interested in the coffee/chat and a chance to nose about an 'artists' house? Increasingly, the more established and professional artists started to rethink. Grouping themselves to take away the personal intrusion. Bit like showing in a gallery really - and in due course Brighton began to house a few more proper galleries again.

Here in Norfolk, things have always been a little different simply by reason of the geography. Outside Norwich the artists are widely spread; they tend not to cluster. So other than in one or two places its not so easy to walk or cycle from one studio to another and this has to a degree mitigated against the Brighton effect. The artists experience is inevitably similar with many deciding not to take part each year, finding the uncertainty over visitor numbers inequitable with the disruption and intrusion. And here as well, at the upper end they tend to grow out of it.

From a gallery's point of view, there has always been unease. Why would you encourage this? It's similar to how any business with overheads would feel about competing with someone selling from the garden gate or roadside with no overheads.  And yet each year there are artists who trail round galleries they have no connection with asking for their promotional material to be displayed and are seemingly surprised that this is not seen as a great opportunity by the gallery.

For my own part, I can see some value to galleries. In the most general terms it increases interest and it attracts visitors. However for a gallery that represents a local artist, his or her open studio can albeit indirectly lead to future business for the gallery - and not necessarily for that artist. It also allows the gallery to have a look at an artists work without declaring their hand.  So - swings and roundabouts, but as a non-participant I am generally in favour. After all as one very well-known artist remarked to me,  "its what you do all day everyday, sitting there waiting for people - I just can't face it". Which is why he's an artist and why galleries exist.

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