The Business of Being an Artist Involved with Open Studios Cornwall 2015

This, in no way, is going to be a short article. It’s informative rather than entertaining, and perhaps you’ll find it interesting as a visitor, and helpful as an artist. Making and selling art is what I do for a living, and this is my report on my involvement with Open Studios Cornwall 2015.

Where’s the studio?
When you hear the term Open Studios, I believe there is an expectation to see a studio, and likely, the artist at work. As someone interested in more than my own work, I love the nosy satisfaction of seeing photographs of other artists’ studios: how they file their paper, organise their pencils, brands of paints, dirty brushes, a peek at a work in progress which may shed light on their work habits. This is what I believe to be the draw of an open studio event and to not show a studio is missing the point.

I understand that not every artist participating in an open studios event may have a studio to show. Some artists work in a corner of the kitchen, or use the dining room table when they can. For artists in that situation, ganging together with others to form an exhibition space makes sense, but there’s still one crucial piece of the puzzle missing: the workspace. The curiosity of the visitor is what brought them to you and you’ve – potentially – let them down by not showing how you work.

My studio was opened to the public but I paired it with a pop-up gallery. What I mean by saying a pop-up gallery is that I took the conservatory of the house in which I live, emptied it, used professional display easels, professional signage, and point-of-purchase racks to display and sell my work. I had a gift shop, essentially, attached to my studio. This was crucial to my event success. I gave the curious public what they came to see – the working studio – and after engaging with each and every one I could (I had many guests), I gave them an opportunity to buy from a wide range of works. An untidy kitchen linked the two event-focussed areas, but that’s how it goes.

Think like your catalogue-clutching visitors. Give them what it says on the tin and more. Sell your lifestyle, not just the work, and they will buy. They might even return for a second visit, bring friends, and buy more. I experienced that blessed situation a few times in the last nine days.

They’re not just buying art.
Being prepared to not only talk about your own art, but the artists your visitors mention, is worth the effort. You don’t need to know all the artists there ever was, but if you can involve your visitor in the conversation by letting them steer it to their familiarities even just a bit, you will leave them with an even more positive impression. You listen. You engage. You appreciate their visit. That is how you work a visit into a conversion, but most importantly, you must be sincere. If you don’t want to engage in that way, you’re probably better off with less public-facing ways of selling.

Several visitors told me that group exhibiting didn’t do it for them. That the person(s) “watching the shop” so to speak, wasn’t necessarily interested in promoting/discussing the work of the others there, and didn’t engage them. I was told it was disappointing to not see artists at work. This feedback is so important. You – as a group exhibiting artist – are paying to be involved in a catalogue event, potentially hiring a venue, and then not maximising the opportunity. It costs you sales. I know this, because some of the visitors giving this valuable feedback were buying my work.

Being on-site for the duration of the event is not practical for everyone wanting to participate as an artist, I understand that. I am in a position where art is my job and I don’t report to anyone else for employment. However, if I did, I’d take vacation time to be on-site, making art, and engaging with the public. It makes business sense. Being on-site for nine days straight, from 11 – 5 daily, and constantly looking out the window to see if someone is approaching is draining mentally, physically, and emotionally, but also necessary. I signed up to be an Open Studio, and that’s exactly what I gave my visitors.

Normal life and risk:
Interruptions of lunch, damage to art, being on hold with my bank for 47 minutes while engaging with my guests… I had it all. I’m recutting two mounts due to dirty visitor fingers marking them whilst looking through stacks of my work. That’s a risk I took, but I wasn’t about to say no to a person genuinely excited about my art. I don’t know if that person bought anything, because I only spotted the damage later and many people had been through. Doesn’t matter. I assumed that risk by having strangers in my studio.

No one wants to sell your work like you do.
I had a little over a week between the closing of my three week solo exhibition in Bude and the start of Open Studios 2015. I earned twice as much money in nine days out of my open house than I did during that exhibition in a popular venue. Why? Because I want to sell my work more than anyone does. The lovely venue has a heritage centre and café, but no full-time art selling staff. My art, though many came to see it through promotional or word of mouth recommendations, was incidental. I wasn’t there every day to engage, to sell, to promote. For Open Studios, I was all of that. The studio was the focus, and the investment was in me. Makes all the difference in the world, and certainly in my business bank account.

So what were my figures? I’ll share.
Over nine days, I had 156 visitors (that I counted), 56 items sold, and £935 in takings. A large number of the 56 sales were postcards at £1 each. The highest price for any single item was £150. Big money? No, but I’m about £1000 better off than I was nine days ago, and the discounts I offered or negotiated were all under my control as the artist on-site. No gallery commissions to pay. A few works were chopped right down in price because I want to sell, but that was my choice during this event. I don’t know what other artists in the area made (I have a rough idea from one up the road, but not his final total), but I do know that I consider the event a success. Every £1 postcard I sold – and there were dozens – puts my name and a reminder of my work in a new home. Many visitors bought three at a time. One visitor bought five of the same card to give to his friends. I also have PayPal Here, allowing me to accept credit and debit cards. That made the difference on three separate occasions. Bottom line: I will be doing this again and refining my business strategy for Open Studios 2016. If I get it right, I know I can double my 2015 earnings.

Curation matters.
I make a lot of different types of art, but opening my studio needed to be as carefully curated as my three week exhibition. I can paint figuratively, I can draw well, but I needed to focus my visitors to ultimately sink or swim with sales. Showing everything I can do is a scattergun approach that does more to alienate the visitor (snow-blinding them with choice/information) than engage them. I focussed on a selection of works in several price ranges, but all were of my abstract art. In the studio, I displayed my daily drawing sketchbooks as a subtle testimony that I can, indeed, draw “properly.” Word travelled of my sketchbooks. Several visitors mentioned they’d “been told to see your sketchbooks.” Conversations sprung up about the sketches and how they relate (or don’t) to my paintings. I was asked so many great questions! Being approachable is good, but strict self-curation has benefitted me greatly. I am not looking for validation from my visitors, I am sharing. It’s a conversation, and the brief nature of our encounters requires management. Curate.

Organisation is professionalism:
The number of people who said I am “so organised” surprised me. I think my studio space is chaotic, not in a Francis Bacon studio sort of way, but untidy. I didn’t clean up for my visitors. This is how I work, and you all want to see how I work, so here it is, warts and all. I have a lot of drawers. I label drawers, jars, and have all my postcards in matching, individual containers with names, SKU numbers corresponding to my database, location and sub-location codes on inventory, and so on the surface, this must strike most people as organised. Well, it is, but it’s also necessary for me to operate as a professional. I make and sell art, and will one day make a living from it alone. I am in a position that I have a few thousand pounds in the bank and so I don’t have a “day job” but my safety net will run out one day and I need to make damn sure I’m not organising my business after it does. Now is the time and everything needs to be accounted for. That people saw my jam-packed, untidy studio as organised is interesting, but also tells me I’m on the right track professionally. That’s pleasing.

Promotional materials:
I went out of my way to promote my involvement with Open Studios 2015. I designed and had printed two-sided, full colour, thick, glossy invitation postcards months before either my exhibition or studio event. I had a custom lawn sign made that gave visitors a clue what to expect, including the days, hours of operation, that I accepted credit cards, and that they are invited to Visit, Browse, Chat, Buy. I mailed out 70 of 100 invitations, and gave away the others. I go nowhere without promotional materials. Every encounter is important when you’re selling yourself, your art. Invest in the opportunity.

Prices, labels, lists:
Information helps sell art. Proper artwork labels with prices (and event specific, incentivised prices) leaves out visitor guesswork. One thing I will do next year, which I feel was something I should’ve done this year, is to print a full price list showing the before and after discount prices of my mounted works, which, this year, I was offering 15% off the marked prices. People don’t always read signs that say that stuff, nor do the math, and so making it clearer at a glance could be helpful and increase sales. I had it on a clipboard for my reference, but left too much guesswork on the shoulders of the visitor. Bad move, me. Must do better for 2016.

In summary:
Open Studios 2015 was a big success for me. I met lots of people. I was able to engage with 99% of them and discussed a wide range of topics. I had a discussion with a gallery who want to work with me. I have two potential commissions. I may have new tuition students. A whole lot of people who didn’t know me or my work now do. Some visitors are now collectors, having purchased up to multiple art pieces from me. Between the passive sales environment of a gallery exhibition and the pro-active, personal sales environment of open studios, the studio wins, hands down. Passive exhibition environments are still a valuable piece of the bigger picture, but utilising the potential of an Open Studios event should be a part of the selling artist’s business plan. I know I’ll be doing it again next year.

If you’d like to discuss how you can make the most of your Open Studios event, including leveraging social media and other promotional avenues, get in touch. I can provide consultancy.