Continuing with the series of how to create the best experience for our open studio visitors. ***With an update for Art at the Source artists who are hosting/hosted outside their studio.***
Arranging our artwork can be complicated. Those folks who do one medium are the lucky ones! 2D people need walls/bins/an easel display or two. Jewelers use cases, 3D people need pedestals/shelves, etc. Me? I do all three, so my display can feel overwhelming. But I also have a special advantage.
Let’s start with 2D artwork. I’ve seen experienced 2D mixed-media artists arrange their paintings by medium: All the oils in one spot, all the acrylics in another, all the watercolors, etc.
The issue I have with this is, I doubt our visitors/customers/potential customers wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll buy a watercolor today!” Now, for sure they might say, “I think I’m ready to buy Sally Baker’s watercolors today.” (Because Sally’s watercolors are unique and stunning.) And yes, some well-experienced collectors may only collect oils, or acrylics, etc. But most of our visitors just want to see our work, especially if they’ve never seen it in person, or are already familiar with it and want to see our work, our workspace, and/or US.
The second reason this may not work well is from my personal experience. A new-to-the-biz gallery owner I knew opened a gorgeous gallery in a major city near me. They had excellent artists, and the work was displayed beautifully except for one thing: It was all arranged, not just by medium, but by each artist’s work.
That meant all the work of one potter was in one spot. All the work of one jeweler was in another spot, and so on. In a store like Corrick’s in downtown Santa Rosa, this can work, for two reasons: First, people can wander from artist to artist easily, and sometimes two people’s work are combined in a way that makes us appreciate both. Pottery on handmade tables, for example.
In this gallery, the space was more linear in set-up. As I entered the store, I realized I was not there for pottery, nor jewelry that day. It was easy to dash by the first pottery display, then dash by the jewelry, etc. In short, it was way too easy to dismiss and eliminate what I was NOT shopping for that day.
So even if you do have a client who is only interested in oils, they may unconsciously totally ignore the acrilics wall–and miss the work that might truly speak to them.
So from the very beginning, (and because I work in 2D, 3D, jewelry, fiber, polymer clay) I’ve mixed and matched my work. There will be a wall hanging hung above a tall stand holding one of my shaman necklaces, with smaller works–smaller necklaces, earrings, etc. arranged around them. Every arrangement is unique, and visitors will look at them longer because it’s harder to simply eliminate them easily.
***Update for Art at the Source artists. This tour allows artists without studios, or studios that aren’t easily open to the public, to join a host artist at that artist’s studio or place. So obviously, mixing it up may not work for anybody, let alone everybody!
But even here is an interesting opportunity for them. What if…
Every artist contributes one piece to a single display. Instead of a visitor thinking, “Nope, not interested in glass today!” or “I only want to visit X’s space”, there could be an integrated display that demonstrates how these cordinated examples of several artist’s work would look in a home. “Oh, look how wonderful that glass tray looks with that painting!” Or “I never thought of grouping my art collection like that!”
Years ago, I shared my studio space with a friend who did a beautiful portrait of my daughter wearing one of my big shaman necklaces. I think she made it after our open studio collaboration. But if I were in that same place now, I could display that portrait with a display of that necklace, together. I’m pretty sure everyone would see both of those works of art with more appreciation, not only of my friend’s skill, but of my own work as well.***
Another technique that works well, especially for works in one medium, is called “Papa, Mama, Babies”. This is where your biggest, priciest piece (the Papa) is the center of the display, one item. It will command attention from anywhere in the room! Around it (whether on a wall, a tabletop, a case) are several slightly smaller, slightly less expensive pieces (the Mamas). Last are a bigger assortment of very small, very affordable pieces–the Babies.
Your longtop or experienced collectors might go for the Papa, of course. Or it may take years to sell, if it’s out of most people’s price range. But it’s doing its job! It shows what you are capable of, your “go big” moment. The Mamas will attract people with a smaller budget, perhaps to fill in for a collection of your work they already have at home.
The Babies? They are for your potential new customers, or people on a budget, people who are new to buying art, and people who are avid collectors but have no more wall/tabletop space in their homes, either because they already have a lot of art, or they’ve downsized. (That’s me on both counts!) For some artists, this can also include a packaged set of cards with our artwork. (Package them in lots of 4, 5, or 6. Don’t let people get away with buying one card.) (In a nice way, of course!) Plus the more cards your visitors buy, the more likely they are to share them with friends. Who will also be introduced to your art.
Another approach is to prioritize you latest, newest body of work, especially if you are slowly or quickly moving away from the regular work, and exploring something new. An abrupt change in our work can disorient people who have followed us for years. (I have a story about that!) Introducing that change gradually can avoid the shock value of the new. (Not always necessary, of course, but the shock in my story link above could have been avoided.)
Another aspect of our work display…. the power of touch.
I’m fortunate in that my art media are durable and touchable. In fact, I encourage people to pick things up, open drawers, and try jewelry on in my studio. Touch is an important human feature. It’s our very nature to want to touch what is intriguing, beautiful, what speaks to us.
Unfortunately, many artist work in media that can’t be touched: Paintings, photography, etc. Or they are too fragile (delicate glass work) or valuable (expensive jewelry), etc.
If this is you, consider proving a little display of what CAN be touched, or examined more closely. Again, one of my favorite displays at Corrick’s art gallery is a little tray showing the tools and materials artist Rik Olson uses for his woodcut prints. It’s educational, and interesting. I’ve never been to his studio, but I hope he has a similar (or even bigger) interactive display there! And back to Sally Baker, she has several wonderful, enticing displays of the lovely salt shakers, dishes, and vases she uses as subjects in her work.
If you do fiber work, consider putting some samples of what you make or use: Strips of wool for rug-hooking, the yarn you’ve spun and braided yourself, a display of the wood you use from a “raw” stump, to slices, to a shaped piece, to a polished/burnished piece. Anything that can be safely handled or simply touched, and also shows the stages of your work process.
One more idea for display, which I got from checking out other artists’ websites: The work is arranged by subject matter: florals, still lifes, animals, portraits, landscapes. (This makes much more sense to me than by medium.) In my home, I set up my collection of 2D work by subject: New England in fall; horses; nature and wildlife; etc., and sometimes by color.
All of these suggestions are not written in stone, and of course, as artists, you should always use what works for YOU. (My ONLY deadfast rule is, no artwork on, or even near the floor. Nobody was to bend over to see your work, it could easily be accidentally kicked by a visitor’s foot, or even trip them, and it sends an unconscious message that you don’t value it yourself.)
But we should also remember that most of our visitors are open-minded and perhaps even a little impulsive about what speaks to them. Oils vs. acrylic, art vs. craft, earth clay vs. polymer clay may (unnecessarily) create divides among artists. But it rarely divides our customers.
Last, let’s talk how much cleaning we should do in our studios.
Mine is always a hot mess. But people love it! I’ve learned to clear enough of my workspaces so it’s not a) dangerous; b) frightening; c) taking up too much space.
But mostly, people love seeing my tools, my materials, my fabric collection, my drawers of artifacts waiting for their special placement in a new piece.
In fact, the biggest reason, IMHO, that new people visit our studios is that they’ve seen something that intrigues them in our work, online, in the preview exhibit, or in a gallery. They want to find out more, about us, our work, our process, even our space. That can also mean showing them a bit of our process (a work in progress, perhaps), a bit of our creative mess (my tools, equipment, extra display items are visible on a higher shelf), our materials (perhaps your paints, brushes, study pieces, etc. would be fun for visitors to see.)
We don’t have to look like a gallery! We just have to make our space look authentic.
When I mentored new artists last year for Art at the Source, each one had concerns about their space. Fortunately, I was able to actually visit their studios at the time. The person who worried her space was too small? That tiny space would encourage and inspire people who didn’t think they had the space for their own studio, perhaps inspire them to rethink their options.
To the person who needed to set up their display in their homes? I helped them remove the distractions (other people’s artwork, etc.), to make clear what was for sale and what wasn’t, and to reposition some furniture so people would avoid the deadends or crowded corners mentioned in my previous article, Make Your Studio Safe for Visitors.
The person who restaged her livelihood workspace for art display? I encouraged their to share a work-in-progress to share her process, and signage to encourage their visitors to “go deeper” because of their powerful story about their work. (More on signage coming soon!)
Our job as artists isn’t just about selling our work. When we share not just our artwork, but our studio, we encourage other people to take up the work of their heart, too. We set a wonderful example that will keep making the world a better place for all of us.
Stay tuned for the next article in this series! How to Talk With Visitors.