How to Organise Open Studios

by Jan Simon

This time of year sees the countryside wake up again after its winter hibernation. It’s also the time that many artists and makers throw open their doors to not only welcome the start of the new season of craft events, but also to invite visitors into their workshops. Here Jan Simon, who is involved with organising the Leigh Art Trail, explains what Open Studios are all about and how artists and makers can get involved.

There is no doubt that Open Studio and Art Trail events are growing in number and popularity every year. No two events are the same in look, feel or organisation, but they all have a common goal. Fundamentally it is a way of bringing local artists together and provides a showcase for their work within the community and artist studio environment. But it’s more than that, as it also encourages access to arts and artistic expression and can provide artists with a network of opportunities that might otherwise not be there. There is no single method for organising this type of event. It is very much dependent on the resources available, the size of the event and whether it’s artist run or part of a local authority or council initiative. So rather than provide a blueprint, I am instead going to create a picture based on my own experience with the Leigh Art Trail. For people who don’t know the Essex geography, Leigh-on-Sea is 40 miles east of London. As a place it’s probably best known for its cockles, tidal mud flats and being near to Southend, but looking beyond the stereotypical image of Essex, what isn’t so well known is Leigh’s large community of artists and designer makers. First set up in 1997 by a group of contemporary artists, 13 years on, Leigh Art Trail has evolved into a 9 day event with over 50 exhibitors. Regardless of its size, it has retained its original ethos of bringing local artists together and providing a high quality event within and for the community. So, if the ‘why’ is about the artist and the community, the ‘how’ is about the practicalities of delivering an art trail in the 21st century � but without losing sight of why it’s being organised in the first place.

Our artists & designer makers
Leigh Art Trail has artists from a broad spectrum of mediums, with the more traditional fine artist alongside photographers, jewellers, installation pieces and contemporary art - a policy which in itself can lead to heated debate, usually on the subject of ‘but is it art?’ To be a member of the Trail artists need to live or work in Leigh. This geographic limitation means that we are able to create a size and quality of event that is beneficial for both the artists, the visiting public and the local community. It helps to create our identity and brand. To give the event an added dimension we also invite guest artists who work in a different or unusual medium to our existing members. So for 2009 our guests include Jeff Soan and his wobbly wooden animals and printmaker Wuon-Gean Ho.

Run by artists for artists
Like many Trails, the Leigh Art Trail is run on a volunteer basis. One of the keys to its success organisationally is that there is a focused chairman and a core group of individuals who organise the key elements � a steering group by any other name. But the challenge is to get every exhibiting artist involved in some way, as it is very much their event. So whether it’s meeting with the Council, handing out maps at the station, or creating our flickr group, everyone has a role to play in creating a successful event.

The venue challenge
Leigh-on-Sea is an eclectic mix of independent shops, restaurants, cafes and art galleries, so artists without a studio can usually be found a complementary space. But there are some limitations; the extra footfall that the Art Trail creates can sometimes be detrimental to some businesses and may not to result in a good experience for the owner, the artist or the bona fide paying customer! What do the venues get out of it? A listing on the 35,000 maps that are produced each year and an entry on the Art Trail website. The extra publicity and trade that this can bring means that we now have businesses contacting us volunteering their space.

On being self financing
Like most art events, funding for Leigh Art Trail, through necessity, comes from a variety of sources. The most basic is that each artist pays a fee to be part of the Trail, which raises some revenue, but not enough to pay the expenses. So then we have to find solutions, which aren’t necessarily financial, that work both for the Trail and our potential sponsors. We usually get some support from our Council but also rely on the local business community and our media partner. One of our main sponsors for 2009 is non-financial and links in with our fundraising as it is a local auction house. We now hold an art auction in December each year and there is no doubt that having a professional auctioneer wielding the gavel is worth more to us than any financial contribution they may make.

Essex Summer of Art
The Essex Summer of Art is a new countywide County Council initiative that brings together 13 Art Trails taking place between May and September 2009. The fundamental benefit for all the Trails involved is that the events will be publicised right across the County and in the National Press. But it is the less quantifiable benefit of networking that is the real bonus. It has given us the opportunity to meet and share ideas with the organisers of 12 other Essex based Trails.

Do you do flickr...
The 21st century aspect is that this year we’ve been introduced to a whole new language and way of networking. Our artists have set up and manage a flickr group, blogspot and a myspace group. Just put ‘Leigh Art Trail’ into their search and you’ll find us.

So what’s it all about?
The Trail is a well established event, but one that has to reinvent itself on a regular basis to remain relevant and appealing to both artists and visitors. Whether it’s through the internet, good old fashioned networking or the work we do within schools and the community, it’s about creating opportunities and making art accessible � being true to its original objective.

The Leigh Art Trail runs from Saturday 13 June 2009 to Sunday 21 June 2009

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