40 years ago, Ned Hoskins, a Brighton artist, opened his own home to the public in order to exhibit his work. It was a result of what he saw as a shortage of good gallery space in Brighton at that time. He invited artist friends to exhibit alongside him. Other houses in the neighbourhood soon joined in, and the event grew in number each year. The Brighton Open House festival now averages around 100 venues stretching across a wide area of Sussex.
I don’t know whether Ned Hoskins was the very first to do this but he was certainly a pioneer. These days the local Art Trail, Art Festival, Open Studios or Open House event comes in many shapes and forms but all have grown in popularity vastly. If you do a little investigation, you will find that nearly every town in the UK has some sort of collaborative organisation in which the makers and artists’ open either their studios, homes, garages or gardens to the public in order to display and sell their work.
The success of these events makes a lot of financial sense. Without the overheads and administration costs incurred by a gallery, which can often necessitate up to 40% commission, both the buyer and the artist come out better off. Selling work directly to the people of your local community is also very rewarding and results in a lot of good feeling on both sides. After all, who doesn’t love a work of art made with a local story attached, often featuring much admired aspects of the area you live in.
Steyning Arts, of which I am currently Co-Chair, is lucky to be based on the edge of the South Downs and the stunning local scenery does indeed feature in, or inspire many of our artists’ work, but not exclusively. One of the more surprising bonuses of being a member of a local art group is the diversity and breadth of subject-matter, medium and approach of our 70 odd members. Because there is no “House Style”, no need to conform to a particular market or customer, we find ourselves joined by makers and artists of all disciplines, constantly being surprised and delighted by the unique aesthetic each brings to the group.
I started exhibiting with Steyning Arts three years ago and gradually became more involved and active within the group until becoming Co-Chair with the very talented and dynamic artist Amanda Duke. I made the decision to open my own house in the Art Trail two years ago and hope I will continue to do so indefinitely, as I can honestly say it has been the most enjoyable experience.
I would like to be able to share some of my experiences below and hope to encourage other artists, wherever you are situated, to have a go at turning your abode into an exhibition space. The benefits are considerable; you will make connections with visitors who now know who you are, where you live and what you do, you will have complete control over how your work is shown and the overall feel of the event, you can add personal touches, give live demonstrations and tell people more about your work this way. Finally, you can relax in your own garden, or even get on with some work in between visitors!
Here are some things to consider before beginning;
Consider which part of your house would make the best gallery space, enabling visitors easy access, some clear wall space when you have cleared it, and the potential for your family to maintain some private living space during the exhibition time. For us it works well to clear the front room, screening off the rest of the downstairs area with display boards. Clearing the space is time-consuming, but is worth it, and you would be surprised how good a de-cluttering session can feel.
There is plenty of potential to get creative with ways to display your work, adding height and depth using different pieces of furniture as props. Purpose built screens are also very useful. My husband put together two 6×4 foot screens which we use for the Art Trail and pack flat in the shed the rest of the year. To make these you will need: an 8×4 foot peg board sheet, several 2×4 pine lengths to frame the boards, and some 18ml plywood sheet to create supports stands for each side of the board.
Good lighting is a must but not as expensive or difficult as you may think. Philips Hue light bulbs are reasonably priced and set to a cool blue daylight setting will light up any dark corners with a good balance of colour. I use a clip on lamp and a cheap standard from Ikea fitted with Hue bulbs. Point them at the ceiling for a more diffused light.
Collaborating and Curating
Some artists love to exhibit simply on their own, but it is worth considering collaborating with others. There are many benefits including creating a show with more variety, attracting more visitors, and having an extra pair of hands to welcome visitors at busy times. Consider which other artists’ work would compliment your own. Artwork with a similar subject matter or media can lead to a themed approach, for example a house of printmakers or photographers. Opposites also attract, and a 3D artist will work with a 2D artist nicely, as well as making good use of the space because each will have different display needs. For the past two years I have exhibited with jeweller Alison Crowe and I really love the way the collaboration enhances and compliments our work simultaneously.
Visitors love the idea of a destination that promises cake. If providing the full tea and coffee service is beyond the man-power and space you have available, then some lemonade and a square of tray bake will still be gratefully received, and is really only polite to offer if visitors have walked some way in hot weather. Most venues will charge a few pounds for their refreshments.
Include some items such as cards or gifts which are in the lowest end of the price range. Much of the work artists do is expensive out of necessity due to the time and skill needed to make it, but your venue will be more welcoming if visitors know they will be able to afford at least a small item there, such as a postcard or bookmark.
I hope you feel encouraged to join an Art Trail and am happy to answer any further questions you might have. Feel free to email me via the Contacts Page!