Marketing Mondays: "Educating the Public"

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On top of a full workload in the studio and often an outside job, some artists seem to feel—or are peer-pressured into thinking—that it’s their responsibility to “educate the public.”  I’m talking about providing talks or demonstrations in conjunction with an exhibition or open studio, or even creating events specifically for education.  

The topic comes up today because of two recent situations:

Situation 1:  Discussing the solo museum show of an artist who works in encaustic, I heard several artists say, “The artist really should give a demonstration so that the public will know how it’s done.” Really?  Does Jasper Johns give encaustic demos when he has a museum show?  Did Louise Bourgeois give tips on marble-carving when she had her shows?  Did Rembrandt give demos to the public on his glazing technique?   

Here's how the public gets educated about art: Museum curators prepare wall texts to inform gallery goers of the historical or technical points of the work. Docents, from the Latin word docēns, to teach or lecture, take small groups around particular galleries within a museum, sharing facts and encouraging discussion about the works on display. Most museums have programs specifically designed for school children, and many have free-entry evenings for adults sponsored by one corporation or another. Audio guides are available for a small fee when docents are not. In the galleries, dealers inform themselves and their staff about an artist’s work so that they can speak knowledgeably about it to any visitor who asks (one of the reasons you need to provide a cogent artist statement). 

Art schools may provide open studios with demos, talks or workshops. These events are designed to attract potential students, but members of the community are usually welcome to attend. Not-for-profit galleries may have, as part of their funding, a program specifically for community outreach. Great! These are precisely the institutions that should be educating the public. And if these institutions want to engage artists to speak about their work, demonstrate a technique or teach a class, it is their responsibility to come up with the funds to pay you.

If you're an artist, your job is to make the art, to find a venue in which to show it if you don't have a gallery, and to create interest in getting folks in to see it. When you focus on demonstrating, you are deflecting attention from content and intent, effectively saying, "I don't know how to talk about the work so I will show you what I do."  What's the takeaway for a viewer? That artmaking is easy? Or that it's hard? Where's the engagement with the art? And isn't engagement what you're aiming for? By the way, the artist whose exhibition precipitated this discussion gave a talk about his work and how it relates to contemporary art and practices, not a demo. 

Situation 2: In a recent Facebook conversation about Open Studios, the discussion turned to which artists would be giving demos to “educate the public.” Artist and blogger Nancy Natale was having none of it: “I have stopped doing open studios because I find it too disruptive and without any real benefit to me. Call me a curmudgeon but I don't feel that I have any duty to somehow enrich the neighborhood by opening my studio for people to walk through and look around.”   

In an email exchange later, Natale expanded her position: “It would be one thing if we were supported by the public in some way, but it's another to be expected to just open our doors for entertainment." Amen.

 Artists who are looking to fill workshops or sell instructional books or videos are likely to feel differently, as are those who depend on tourist dollars for sales. That's fine; for them an open studio or demo is advertising for what they have to offer.

Call me a curmudgeon, too
I’m not against educating an art-going public, but it's futile to bring out the dogs and ponies for people who enter a studio or gallery with dripping ice cream cones while declaiming loudly that their five-year-old could do better or asking "What does it mean?" without really listening to your answer. Doing a soft shoe for museum-going tourists more interested in flash-photographing themselves against Picasso-as-a-prop is equally as futile. You can't compete with ignorance. 

Educating with a Purpose
Here's a win/win: Some artist grants, particularly at the local or regional level, come with an educational stipulation. In return for financial support you're required to give a talk or provide some sort of teaching experience to the community that gives you the grant. That seems fair to me.

Given the decrease in arts funding everywhere, I applaud artists who come up with ways to educate the public while creating work opportunities for themselves. For instance, I could imagine an entrepreneural artist launching a Kickstarter or USA project within a PTA or alumni association to encourage members of that community to support their (the artist's) educational project. The funding organizations provide the structure for community organization, and their time-based fundraising period creates a legitimate sense of urgency.

Here's another: As I was writing this post, I received an interesting email from the A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn. Topic: Enriching Your Home with Art.  “A.I.R. Gallery hosts a workshop on how to begin buying art that enlivens your home or office. Join us for this exclusive opportunity to view affordable works by contemporary artists and get tips on buying art. A.I.R gallery staff members and artists will be available to answer your questions and offer advice. Gallery Director Julie Lohnes demystifies the art gallery and discusses how to search for art you will love. Barbara Siegel, artist and Associate Professor at Parsons The New School for Design, explores drawings and other works on paper through creative examples selected from the gallery's flat files. Jeanette May, artist and faculty at the International Center of Photography, presents contemporary digital photographs and traditional silver prints, and discusses photographic media, techniques, and editions. Light brunch included in workshop fee of $20. Workshop limited to 25 participants.”  

What I like about the event just described is that the presenters will show and discuss art related to acquisition, something that demos do not do. A range of art will be presented for discussion; in this context it's perfectly appropriate to address the artist's technique as it relates to a particular body of work or a specific piece if the question comes up. More pointedly, there’s a signup and fee, which requires a commitment on the part of the public. I think A.I.R.'s concept hits all the right notes. If you’re going to “educate the public," make sure the public wants to be educated. 

Over to you.

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Lynette Haggard said...

Whew—what a topic. I am an artist with feet in both places. In the past, I have done 3 demos, two for pay and one free. It is a huge time suck and not worth the tiny pay... I'm so done with that.

Thanks to your blog and sound business mindedness, I have given up doing donations and demos (except at a venue that is a win-win, like the International encaustic conference, thank-you!)

I get asked to donate my work to auctions, give high school art class tours of my studio. I've done both of those things but stopped. It is disruptive to my practice and not beneficial to me.

I work a full time job as well as maintain an art practice. My time in my studio is precious and I pay for it.

While open studios is not high on my list, I recently chose to open my doors (which I don't always do). My purpose for doing this is to show my work, invite local collectors, and to pay my studio rent and buy art materials. I had a successful Open Studios and for that, I'm grateful. Good turnout, two new collectors and some cash in the bank. But it was not easy and I hope some day to be in a better position to not need that type of income.

I totally understand Nancy's position! However I am in 2 small galleries and am working to get out there more, and gain more venues.

So my thought is that if you are discretionary about doing these types of things, and taking care of your art practice and yourself as an artist, sometimes it is ok. BUT NOT a requirement.

My goals for this year are to "get myself and my work out there more" not via demos or open studios....

Thank for the post!

Jane Davies said...

Thanks for the permission to continue NOT doing Open Studios! I've never been able to articulate what it is that I find distasteful about it - something about invading my space, or being on display as an Artist, a separate species of worker. I do have workshops and books to sell, but largely not to the local public. My time is better spent sharing what I do on my blog and web site, on my own schedule, where I reach my real customers who support my work. Our local Open Studios is always on a long weekend, when I'd rather be taking a long weekend. For years I did craft shows as a potter, and working weekends was part of the job. But as a fine artist, I work five days a week with the occasional weekend workshop. That's enough weekend work for me! Thanks again for a great post! Looking forward to the Encaustics Conference.

Suejin Jo said...

I so agree with Nancy Natale. Opening one's studio is a lot of work and disruptive to art making. Recently I had two people who really admired my work at AAF visit my studio. They spent a long time to find fault with every piece I showed them such as "too expensive", "too dark", "too fragile" etc etc. In the end there was no sale and I felt they were just looking for entertainment.

Thanks for the post and persistently writing about art making business.

Suejin Jo

Emily said...

Last year at open studios a viewer took one look at my "Dog Fight" print and gave me this despising look and said "dog fights are horrible!" As if my representation was an endorsement.
I would gladly have explained that yes, that is exactly why I CHOSE the subject, and how it related to my concepts, but the woman was gone.

Open Studios are a culture gift to the community, perhaps neighborhoods/organizations could start charging an admission fee (ex. $20 buys a button to see all the studios, akin to First Night) The fee itself would send an educational message regarding cost putting on such an event and solicit more legitimately interested art-goes.

(note: I will be doing open studios this year, but I won't be displaying any of my more conceptually challenging pieces)

Anne Smidt said...

Great post. I worked on an open door committee for 3 years.
And, also opened my studio for 3 years. Yikes. What a futile, disruptive experience. I had to groom my backyard which leads to my studio, remove my dogs out of their home and yard for 2 days - each year, demo and explain my technique. I have never sold anything at an open studio tour.
bah humbug. at least my opinion.
I'd rather be painting.

Leslie said...

Every other year for the last six years we have had an Open Studio Tour for between 12-15 professional artists in rural upstate New York. For each of those events the artist collectively sold between 50,000-70,000 over the two day weekend. Some sell better than others, but we make it very clear that this is a sales opportunity, not a demo-event. These sales have developed collectors and after Open Studio sales. This is a curated event, the artists pay the expenses, but they keep all of their sales. It is a lot of work, and may at a point not be worth the work. But in these last years when all sales in general have been more difficult, this has been a Godsend. But this Open Studio was started and developed by artists and tried to make it beneficial to the artists.

Peg Grady said...

I rented a space in an open studio set up where the public was encouraged to stop in and see artists at work, and, hopefully purchase art. It was impossible to work there...the fishbowl is not conducive to creativity. But the worst part was the painfully ignorant comments from much of the public who wandered through and the encouragement (not very subtle) from the owners of the business, that we artists educate the public about art. I don't need to be an educator (and really am quite awful at it), I need to make art. Never again will I put myself in a situation like that. Thank you, Joanne, for your post. Now I don't feel quite so alone in my curmudgeonhood.

ruth hiller said...

Boulder, Colorado has a huge open studios event every year with over 160 artists. There are no art galleries in Boulder... the population here, even though they are high income households, has become used to getting art super cheap during open studios. It has totally devalued art in Boulder when you can get a 7 foot tall acrylic painting for $300, to match your couch.

I did do open studios 2 years ago and sold over 20 paintings, but they were all the small pieces. It is definitely a lot of work and disruptive to the studio practice.

My favorite was when someone's child was wildly swinging my black light within an inch of my painting as the mother looked on and laughed!

Ravenna Taylor said...

I could not agree more. Fresh out of art school in San Francisco, I took a space at Hunters Point Shipyard, where Open Studio was a big event -- some people ONLY rented their studio, all year round, for the opportunity to open it on two days to the public. With lots of organized PR, over 10,000 would come through the complex, which housed studios for a few hundred artists. I did it for several years, having no other opportunity to show work. People came in to comment on the views through my window of SF Bay, to ask about my rent, to see what refreshments were offered. Nothing professional ever came out of it. One year after an illness, I put up some of the work I'd shown the previous year, with the little bit of new I'd produced, and someone walked in and with disgust said, "I saw this LAST year!" (nice that he remembered). And yes, I got the "my kid could do this better" comment once too. One year I had to be out of town and couldn't participate, and never went back. Too disruptive and no reward.

That said, I just did an open studio in my little western NJ location, in Lambertville. But my motives were completely personal. I wanted to inaugurate a new season and a new passage in my life. Also, I haven't lived here that long and I wanted to invite my community to know what I am doing when I am turning down invitations to socialize! I've been isolated by an injury and wanted to give anyone who could come a chance to see what had previously only been viewable online. To my surprise, I sold four pieces out of my storage and that's great as far as I'm concerned. The preparation for open studio WAS disruptive, in that I spent a couple weeks cleaning and reorganizing my space -- but it really needed it and that will be entirely to my own benefit, although I wouldn't have taken the time if not for the event. I posted my open studio set-up on my blog too, for those who couldn't attend.

I won't do it again soon, or regularly, but this was a good experience because I was clear about what I was doing and why. No demonstrations! it was a party and festive. Thanks for raising the topic.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your statement in part, but not totally. You said, "If you're an artist, your job is to make the art, to find a venue in which to show it if you don't have a gallery, and to create interest in getting folks in to see it." It is really the role of gallery (or museum for that matter) to promote the exhibition. Artists should work with the institution/gallery to educate their staff on what the nature of the work is about, but it is not the artists responsibility to get people to see the work and educate the public (which you clearly state). A subtle, but important difference.

ska said...

You do know how to open a can of worms, Joanne. But it sure makes me question what art centers ask me to do. I have a small studio in an art center that is reasonable in price, and that I hoped would serve as a way to gain students and a place to show work to prospective buyers -- and to make myself more visible in my community and to the art center, as I dont have a commercial gallery and no longer have the time to commit to an artist-run space. Its been a mixed bag. I am expected to open my studio during first Friday openings at their gallery, and on special occasions, but the center does not advertise that the artists are there, so no one comes to buy art, just roam around. Then I offered to repeat my Conference lecture later this summer, as their lectures draw good crowds from Richmond's large art community and the center's board and members. Last week, it was suggested that I not give it as their "Coffee and lecture" series had no funders -- not that I had been offered a fee to give it. It was, I felt, my offering of a service to my community. Yet they didnt want to go to the trouble of offering a lecture unless the center got paid. Something is wrong here. But this is not new. As my lecture will show, the public, art centers and the collectors often expect art to be entertainment and fair game for free. Although this is a long standing art center, they have trouble filling classes and getting funding - because they do not support the artists who teach or have studios there. I believe your Monday subjects serve an important role in making us have more respect for ourselves and what we do.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments. I appreciate hearing from you.

As Leslie points out, open studios can be a real financial boon to artists in a less than stellar economy. And as Ravenna points out, an open studio event can have good results if the artist goes into it with a specific intent; for Ravenna it was to connect with others in her creative community.

On the other hand, as so many of you have concurred, the effort of Open Studios may outweigh the benefits.

Anonymous: It is not my suggestion that artists take over the entire promotion of their gallery or museum show, but with social networking, email newsletters and our personal mailing lists, we can do a lot to get folks into a venue. I welcome everything that the venues do, but I *always* augment that with promotion before and after the fact. Here on this blog, for instance, I posted a tour of "Lush Geometry" at DM Contemporary (up through June 1), and on Saturday morning, a post will go up announcing an opening that evening at Kenise Barnes Fine Art in Larchmont. The info is on the sidebar of my blog, and in an exhibition tab as well.

Artists and their dealers are partners in the effort. I respect and admire my partners, and I work with them.

Susanne: You might propose your lecture to a local/regional academic institution or museum. Sometimes small non-profits just don't have the vision, interest or personpower to appreciate a gift that's offered to them.

ska said...

Thanks, and yes, a college in Newport News, Va, is interested in the lecture, particularly the 19th c artists (Degas, Rosso) as my viewpoint (wax) is new to them. And you are right, staffing is always a problem with art centers, but I am disappointed in the lack of sufficient respect and support for those that teach there. Low salaries and long hours take a lot out of such employees (having been one myself), still.... I can remember one Dean at a local university who said, "But artists have closets full of work, why shouldnt they exhibit it for nothing." SKA

Tim McFarlane said...

Another great topic!

I participate in one city-wide open studio event event a year and that's enough for me. It is a lot of work and disruptive to the working process, however, the one we have here in Philly-the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (POST) is a very well-organized and very well promoted event that attracts a lot of visitors to many studios. Of course, some artists do better than others depending on location, but as a whole, it is a very good way of promoting your work to the general public. I use my participation as a selling event and as a way to let people from the general public see what I'm doing between exhibitions.

I nixed the idea of doing demos a long time ago because I don't feel comfortable working in front of an audience because my art-making is a really solitary experience. I don't mind having visitors to my studio during prescribed open studio hours, but demos of any sort are out of the question. I always have an artist statement available and will gladly answer any questions visitors might have. That's how I choose to "educate" visitors to my work space. I have never gotten the, "my kid could do that" kind of comments...at least not within earshot nor to my face.

I have been filmed working in my studio a couple of times.Those experiences are always always anxiety-inducing, even as the resulting videos have been good. Lucky for me, the videographers I worked with were very good with helping me feel less uneasy. Interestingly, a friend and collector of my work, who has a background in video work, suggested in a comment on a facebook post about my recent in-studio residency that for the next one I do, we could set up remote-controlled cameras that I could turn off and on as a way to document the experience. I politely declined that suggestion right away for reasons that I have mentioned above.

Elizabeth Kostojohn said...

Great post. Is there such a thing as "private" open studios? I mean: where it is invitation only...or perhaps open only members of certain art associations can attend? This might ensure more visitors who are genuinely interested and respectful of the work. The goal is to have only visitors who are active in the art world, in whatever capacity. People who are just passing by with their ice cream cones can come to the "public" open studios, as are held currently.

Joanne Mattera said...

Good point, Elizabeth.

In my experience, artists will often open their studios privately. For instance, before Jackie Battenfield sent her solo show off to her gallery in Washington D.C., she held a private showing at her Brooklyn studio for her friends and colleagues. I thought it was a great way to get folks into see her "show." The point was not to sell--her gallery would do that--but to offer a look.

Other artists have opened their studio to private tours, or specific art groups. In this way they're assured of having an audience that is truly receptive to their work.

Eva said...

Joanne, your last remark reminds me of an artist here. He had gallery representation but things were going slow and he didn't feel on their radar. But the artist was having a show in another town. So he had an event in his studio, showing the work to friends, local collectors and the dealer before sending it off. Lo and behold, collectors were interested and he got another show lined up in his home town.

annell said...

You always cover so many good points! Thanks for the work you do, educating us all.

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister. As a gallerist, I always advise my artists NOT to do open studios precisely because of all the the points already mentioned, but also because of one more. In my experience, most people go to an artist's studio for one of two reason...voyeurism or an expectation of discounted pricing. How many times have the artists heard,"Since I'm buying directly from you, do I get a better price?" I tell my artists, "The price is the price no matter where you buy it." Of course, pricing is a whole 'nother topic.

Helen Hyder
Projects Gallery

Anonymous said...

Adding that Projects Gallery is in Philadelphia.