This article originally appeared on my blog five years ago, but I’ve updated it with more examples of where my decisions came from.
I had an open studio last weekend (5 years ago), a community art event that’s very popular in our neighborhood.
I spent the week before clearing clutter, arranging and pricing new work,dusting (I decided to call it ‘patina’ instead), in preparation. True to form, I was also making new work up to the day before. I get my best ideas with the pressure of a deadline!
There are two things I did/didn’t do that may astound you.
I DON’T offer refreshments for visitors in my studio.
I DO provide small gifts for children, and encourage them (and other visitors) to touch my work.
You may be astounded. Most artists/craftspeople I talk to, do exactly the opposite. They hope to entice visitors with snacks, coffee, even wine.
The welcoming-kids part stops many artists in their tracks. In fact, when I wrote a series of columns and an ebook about keeping your workspace/selling space holy, one artist actually asked me specifically how to keep kids out of their booth.
First, the food thing.
I quit offering food, drinks, and especially alcohol, in my open studio events because I don’t need to anymore.
It can be an ice-breaker, especially for bored husbands who usually show up with hands in pockets or schlepping their wife’s/partner’s purchases. But there are better ways to break the ice.
And food can be a distraction. In fact, it got to the point at events in my old studio location where the only real reason people came was to eat and drink.
An example that proves my case? My husband and I attended such an open studio event there after I left. In one large studio was a big exhibit of artwork. In the middle of the room was a table filled with wine and food (chips, dip, etc.), with some stools tucked under the table. My husband promptly pulled out a stool, sat down at the table, and proceeded to tuck in a huge amount of chips and dip. He completely misread the room on that one. (I pulled him away and explained it wasn’t like sitting at the bar of a restaurant witha bowl of chips.) (In his defense, he was hungry!)
Also, there can be negative aspects to serving alcohol at a public event, especially if people are driving afterwards. I don’t know the liquor laws in Sonoma County. But artist Caren Catterall, who co-chaired with me on the mentoring committee at Art At The Source in 2021, mentioned that serving alcohol is not recommended, due to potential liability issues. She’s good at this stuff, so I encourage you to follow her advice.
As for food in open studios, for years I prepared a feast of snacky thingies, coffee, tea, etc. for guests. But people rarely partook of any of it. So a few hours of food prep did result in lots of great left-overs for my family, but otherwise served no real purpose. Because….I found a better way to engage visitors.
Instead, I tell them it’s okay to touch my art work. It has the same appeal, permission to relax and explore, and it works. And no more visitors who are only into the wine, and nothing else. (JON!!)
So why do I welcome kids in my art space?
Because it is an act of generosity, compassion, good will, and education. And it’s the best gift I can offer visitors with kids, especially those who are new to my work.
First, welcoming kids means you are also welcoming their parents, or grandparents. Few places accomodate kids. Find a way to do that, and you’ll earn the undying gratitude of their accompanying grown-ups.
Second, being open to kids lets the grown-ups actually shop. If not today, then when the kids are older.
Third, the peace of mind you create in your space expands to all your booth/studio visitors. When others hear you giving permission to engage, they relax, too.
Finally, the education bit. Parents are often the younger crowd we wish we could attract, and their kids are also future collectors. By removing the pressure of “don’t touch!” and “hands off!”, and “no kids!”, we create a unique opportunity to talk deeply with all visitors about our work.
I cannot tell you how many creative people tell me that “people don’t appreciate fine art/fine craft” anymore. Or how “schools don’t teach that appreciation to young people anymore.”
I’m baffled by this. When did “regular people” ever appreciate fine craft or art?? Especially our currently very narrow definition of it!
I know this from personal experience. I didn’t know any artists or craftspeople growing up. I never saw any books about it, nor art exhibitions, nor even art museums, until I went away to college.
When were we ever taught it in school? Art in elementary/middle school was drawing with pencils and crayons, and paper mache, and construction paper galore. Even in high school, the art room kiln broke when we fired our first clay creations. There was never any money in the budget for real paints and brushes, and the art teachers simply didn’t have the time/bandwidth/resources for anything beyond the bare minimum instruction. (One teacher was also the only coach for all women’s sports –volleyball, softball, and basketball–and was only hired my junior or senior year. With all the games, training, after-school stuff, when would they ever have time to dig deeper into art?) When the school budget was cut, art and music were the first things to go. (Not sports, though.) I’m sure things today aren’t much better, as home ec (aka, “basic life skills”) and vocational trades programs go the way of the mastodon.
Second, We’re actually in a period of incredible exposure to handmade crafts, handwork, and fine art. People can easily find all kinds of creative work, in stores, in stores with galleries, online. Instagram feels made for creative work! It’s as easy to buy a handmade item or a work of art online as it is to buy a hammer or a box of hot chocolate mix.
So who will teach and inspire the art-makers of the future? Who will share the vision, and encourage the connection for the art collectors and art admirers of tomorrow?
When we engage people with our work, we share something powerful. Inspiration, artistic vision, professional goals, our process, our materials (and why we choose them) are ways to educate (gently), connect (authentically), and encourage our audience to buy and collect handmade. People are genuinely hungry for this.
I get that not all work is touchable, or safe for young ones to handle. I’m fortunate that my artifacts are sturdy. In fact, their touchability is a strong selling point, too. But we’re creative people. We should be able to come up with ideas that could work.
I have several. I keep a box of shiny, pretty beads on hand. l ask young ones to pick one, and then offer to make a necklace for them, using inexpensive cording and slip knots.
I keep some samples of animal artifacts on hand, too. I’ll ask a youngster if they’d like to hold a bear or a horse (or a bird or a fish). They’re so unnerved, they’re usually speechless, but also intrigued! I let them hold the animal while their parents look around, and retrieve it when they leave. Parents are so grateful!
I freely hand out business cards with images of my work on them, or old show postcards. Again, a well-appreciated gift, and also a reminder of their visit to my space.
Touch is such a compelling instinct for all humans, not just young ones. So much so that I encourage you to try this: If your work is too delicate to touch) having a sample of your work on hand that is touchable, even for grown-ups: A sample of the handmade paper you work with for people to stroke, or a piece of the roving you turn into handspun yarn. For fine 2D art, perhaps a scrap of paper with a bright daub of paint on it, or the experimental work you made to figure out color mixes, cut up into pieces for them use as a book mark.
Let them look at some of your tools, or raw materials: Old paintbrushes. Samples of the wood you carve. A printing block. (Remember Rik Olson’s shadowbox display, with samples of his materials, tools, and a little work-in-progress? Brilliant!)
At the very least, try business cards featuring images of your work. Moo is an online printing company that offers small business cards. They cost more than other brands (watch for their sales!), but you can customize them to the point where you can order 100 cards with 100 different images of your work. So cool to say to a child, “Would you like a picture of a bunny, or a bird?”!
It’s worth brainstorming about how other art and craft media could be presented in small samples or even inexpensive “gifts” to kids. I’d love to hear your current strategies, ideas, and suggestions in the comment section!
I’m posting a pic from my friend Melinda LaBarge. She made these lovelies for young visitors to her booth! Send your pics, and I’ll add them!