Artists’ studios are fascinating places. Some are elegant showrooms, others resemble a mad scientist’s lair, and others are homey communities where you feel love and inspiration almost immediately.
If you’re nosy like me, there’s nothing more satisfying than School 33’s Open Studio Tour, an annual event where artists register their studios so that anyone can pop in for a visit. For twenty years, the studio tour has been an excellent way for artists to gain public exposure for their work. A few years back, I rented a warehouse studio in Station North, and I participated in this event year after year, and it was mostly a positive experience. I had several studio mates to protect me from creeps and we provided a great spread of food and drinks, and had a good time ourselves.
Of course, when public and private worlds collide, there’s always the potential for awkwardness and misunderstanding. Based on my own experiences as an artist and a visitor, I have compiled a list of helpful hints to keep your day upbeat and even inspirational, with a minimum of faux passes.
Open Studio Tour Etiquette for Visitors
1. Know Your Purpose. Are you coming to purchase or coming to browse? Either one is fine, but it is good to be clear. Artists are happy to talk to you about their work and are thrilled if you purchase it, but mixed signals are downright awkward. Be clear about your purpose with the artists you visit, if it comes up. If you are there because you are looking for a studio, put that out there as well. About half of our visitors asked the cost of our rent, how we got the space, and if a studio was available. Artists, if this is a concern, put out a list for interested possible studio mates to sign up for future notifications.
2. Ask Questions. Artists LOVE to talk about themselves – and their work. And their friends and families are sick of hearing about it. Trust me, you won’t look dumb. They will bask in the glow of your interest and their genius. This is a must.
3. Refreshments. Snacking is fine, but don’t eat all the food and don’t drink all the wine. You art lurkers out there– you KNOW who you are! You come to every event and graze at the food table. You never ever buy art, and hardly ever look at it. Please remember, the artists had to PAY to be part of the tour, and have paid for the food. Just be polite. This is a studio– not a smorgasbord.
4. How to Answer an Artist’s Question. What secretly terrifies would-be studio tour visitors? If an artist suddenly asks, expectantly, “So what do you think of my work?” And then your brain freezes up and you think, Ohhhhhh God. OhGodOhGodOhGod. What do I say? What if I hurt their feelings? What if I say the wrong thing? Most of us are not schooled in ‘artspeak.’ Usually I have no idea what I think because I just need more time, but I can’t SAY this because it sounds mean.
So, what is an appropriate response? Let’s face it – the studio tour is not graduate school. It is not a critique. Art students PAY for these kinds of services, so don’t feel like you have to step out into the minefield. Take the political debate approach: Don’t answer the question! Instead, ask THEM a different question. Ask them what they think about Post Modernism. Ask them about their process. Ask the artist what their inspiration was for a certain piece. If pressed, tell them you think the work is “intriguing.” But DON’T say anything else, because you’re walking on butterfly wings and broken dreams.
5. Takeaway Materials and Mailing List. If an artist offers you their information, and if you are not seriously interested in it, you’re not doing them a favor by accepting these, only to throw them away later. Most likely, the artist paid to have these made. If you are interested, sign up for their mailing list or newsletter and follow them on social media. And if not, politely decline, saying “Thank you, but I want to make sure there are enough for everybody.”
6. Purchasing Art. What if I DO want to buy something? This can be an iffy gray area. Some artists are pros, and are clear on the market value of their work. Some artists will have prices listed next to their work and a printed price list is a clear sign of professionalism. Some artists have NO IDEA how to price their work and will appear surprised when you ask for a price. Small works on paper can go anywhere from $50 to $2000. Larger paintings on canvas can go for more and sometimes less. I would suggest doing your homework here. Artist’s websites are listed on the School 33 website. Check out the work beforehand if possible.
If you fall in love with something on the spot and have to have it, that is GREAT! Ask the artist for their price. If it seems too high (and you have done your homework on the artist) tell them you LOVE the work and then ask ONE TIME and no more, if there is any wiggle room on the price. Don’t expect the price to go down lower than 20% off of the original, though. Please know that if you press further, this is an insult. If the price is still too high for your budget but you love the work, ask if you can start a payment plan, like a layaway program for art. Make sure you get a receipt and documentation, but this is a great way to purchase the art you really want and not compromise because of cost.
7. Social Media. Always ask for permission to take a photo and if you can post it to social media. For many artists you’re doing them a favor and this is helpful. But for others, they may not want photos in circulation or may want to approve the photo first.
8. Have fun. This event is free and seeing an artist’s studio, even after serious cleaning, is so different than seeing their work in a gallery exhibition. This is a unique opportunity. When done correctly, you will stay in touch with the artist as their career (and yours) grows and you may be in a position to act as a patron to them, investing in their work over time as it increases in value.
Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt