As it celebrates its 30th year, Santa Cruz County’s Open Studios is one of the most successful in the country—and a make-or-break event for many local artists
With the fifth most dense artist population in the country—behind San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Fe—Santa Cruz is a hotbed for creative talent. Several local venues, including Tannery Arts Center, Artisans Gallery, R. Blitzer Gallery, Santa Cruz Art League, Many Hands Gallery, Pajaro Valley Arts Council Gallery, and First Friday venues provide space for local artists to show and sell their creations. But the number of local artists we have far outnumbers the space available. This is where Open Studios comes in.
For three weekends in October, artists from Watsonville to Davenport open up their workspaces and invite the public in. Open Studios gives the participating artists—whether full-time or weekend warriors—a chance to get their work in front of people, connect with their peers, network with the extended community of art appreciators and collectors, and make some money. This year—the event’s 30th anniversary—there are 288 artists participating. For some of them, Open Studios brings in a significant portion of their annual income.
Local artist Marie Gabrielle, for example, estimates that half of her annual income comes from Open Studios. A watercolorist who paints Santa Cruz scenery and other landscapes, Gabrielle sells more originals during Open Studios than she does the rest of the year.
“I don’t really lean on the galleries for my income,” she says, “I lean on Open Studios. It’s a very important part of my income.”
“A core value of ours is to help those artists who want to professionalize and expand their businesses,” says Michelle Williams, executive director of the Arts Council Santa Cruz County. “We want to teach artists how to thrive, and we do everything within our resources to support them in that way.”
The Arts Council provides infrastructure and promotion for the event so the artists can focus on getting their studios ready for the public. In the weeks leading up to it, Open Studios manager Ann Ostermann has her hands full keeping the artists calm.
“It’s my job to get them to breathe,” she says. “I tell them to get down to basics: decide what they want to show the public about their art, put it out there, and have fun.”
Ostermann and the Open Studios team provide a variety of tools to help artists step up their business savvy and professional game. The participating artists, who are chosen through a juried selection, get access to resources which can help them price their work, prep their home or studio, and display their art. There are also sample press kits for artists, workshops on using social media, and pre-written social media blasts with the event’s hashtags included.
By enabling local artists to meet the public in their own element, Open Studios offers a unique opportunity for art lovers to connect not just with a piece of art, but with the artist, the process, and story behind it.
“You can go to the Capitola Art and Wine Festival and see somebody’s stuff in a 10×10 booth and click with it,” says Ostermann. “Then you go to their home and you see their palette, or you see their tools, or you see works in progress. It really informs the public on the art-making process, and it makes them understand the value of handmade art.”
THE GREAT EQUALIZER
Artist Charles Prentiss, who spent 29 years as curator at the Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History, has participated in Open Studios for the last 15 years. Prentiss lives in a cohousing community in La Selva Beach with three families who all designed their own houses in 1979. Every year during Open Studios, he opens up his work space for people to see his paintings, which include landscapes, beach scenes, farm fields, plants, and still lifes. Some of his sweeping, colorful works are enormous, running several feet and beyond in length.
“Open Studios is a great opportunity to sell art,” he says, “and a great social time. You see all your friends, and patrons, and people that want to buy art.”
He explains that Open Studios is the one time of year when people in Santa Cruz County feel comfortable going out and looking at artists’ work, studios, and tools.
“They could probably do that any time of the year,” he says, “but Open Studios triggers it.”
A number of painters participate in Open Studios, but there are also guitar makers, sculptors, furniture makers, jewelry makers, bookmakers, ceramicists, glass artists, printmakers, street artists, tile artists, photographers, toy makers, and more. This diversity of styles is one of the things that makes Open Studios so special. While some mediums—such as handcrafted furniture and guitars—don’t easily lend themselves to gallery shows, Open Studios enables the artists and their creations to stay put and have art lovers come to them.
Open Studios also demystifies the art-making process and spotlights the fact that there are fine artists all around us. It’s the great equalizer of the local art scene, bringing to the foreground the abundance of creative people in our community, from emerging artists and hobbyists, to retired professionals and full-time artists.
“People see that these are everyday people who just happen to express themselves artistically,” says Ostermann. “It makes them much more approachable. Open Studios brings art down to the human level so people see that these are just regular folks who happen to be really creative.”
Over the last three decades, Santa Cruz County’s Open Studios Art Tour has grown to be one of the most robust and longest-running in the country. Where other, volunteer-driven programs have been unable to maintain momentum, the local program has been going strong—and covering its costs. For the last 11 years, Open Studios has been managed by Ostermann, who Williams calls “the picture of grace under pressure.” Prentiss echoes the sentiment, saying one thing that makes Open Studios work so well is the people behind it.“Ann keeps it fresh for everybody and makes it easy,” he says. “And she keeps it just loose enough for the artists.”
As with years past, organizers expect Open Studios visitors from throughout California and beyond. Every year, they field calls from around the state regarding Open Studios, and every year, they have people come in from the surrounding states, and as far away as New York.
This year, artists Freya Larson and Rollo Baer, who create art as Larson Baer, have people flying in from Sweden for Open Studios. The couple, who started making art together in the 1960s and had a gallery in SoHo in the ’70s, now lives in a lively artist community with their children and grandchildren in Beach Flats. They’ve participated in Santa Cruz Open Studios periodically since its inception.
The two collaborate on pieces inspired by the pre-Christian, indigenous art of Europe and 16th and 17th century Dutch portraiture. Baer sculpts reclaimed redwood boards and pieces into textured, one-of-a-kind shapes, and Larson paints fantastic images combining muted colors and vibrant splashes onto the redwood forms. The process involves constant back-and-forth between the two artists. The result is something extraordinary that pays tribute to ancient art and classical styles, introducing the aesthetics to new audiences. Over the years, they’ve fine-tuned their approach to working together.
“When we lived in New York, we attempted to work on the same painting at the same time,” says Larson. “We did it as conceptual work, and we got written up in the New York Times. But slowly, over the years, we’ve realized that he’s the sculptor and I’m the painter. It’s much easier.”
The two have created what they estimate to be around 1,000 pieces together. From the conceptual phase through a piece’s completion, their process involves balancing styles, eras, personalities, and disciplines. Larson is trained in the European classical painting tradition, and Baer was raised in the Modernist sculptural tradition.
“We feel like we’ve synthesized sculpture and painting a little more thoroughly than anyone else has,” says Baer. “Or we’re in the process of it. It’s a real struggle. They’re quite different disciplines.”
Where Larson Baer reaches back to the earliest European art for creative inspiration, street artist Taylor Reinhold works on the cutting edge of urban art, creating large-scale, vibrant works that combine spray paint and acrylic paint. His primary focus these days is live-painting temporary walls at festivals.
When GT spoke with Reinhold, he had just returned from Burning Man, where he and several other members of his Made Fresh Crew (MFC), a collective of local artists, musicians, photographers, skateboarders, performers, and more, created a 50-foot mural at Center Camp. They were on their way to do a three-day live painting project at the Symbiosis Gathering in Oakdale, California. Reinhold sees Open Studios as a great opportunity for people to see creative styles that they might not otherwise encounter.
At his home workspace, which is in a renovated barn in the Soquel hills, Reinhold will have paintings, apparel, lasercut wood, and art toys, all made by MFC. There will also be muralists collaborating on a wall and an interactive element where visitors can learn to create art with spray paint.
“Anyone can come and spray paint, and learn to use the can,” he says. “It’s an interactive studio space for people to come and see a different side of art that they might not have been exposed to, or they might not understand.”
As a muralist working at different sites most of the year, Reinhold, who is the son of Annie Morhauser of Annieglass, appreciates the opportunity Open Studios provides to clean his space, organize his work, get grounded, and show his creations. At his first Open Studios last year, he was surprised and pleased by the turnout.
“You get a lot of response from the community,” he says. “People who have seen your stuff talk to their friends and it just spreads like wildfire. I live pretty far up in the mountains, in probably one of the hardest studios to get to, so I wasn’t expecting very many people to show. But people from three or four hours away come to Santa Cruz just to check out the art.”
For the last 29 years, the Santa Cruz Open Studios Art Tour has been pay-to-play—to find out where all the artists were, one needed to buy the artist guide. This year, organizers are taking a dramatically different route and giving the guide away for free.
“We actively decided to focus on the open part of Open Studios,” says Williams, Arts Council executive director.
The program’s old business model, which involved selling a $20 guide, worked for a while, but over the past several years, guide sales have been declining by 20 percent each year. The declining sales prompted the Arts Council to reevaluate how the program could support itself.
Reinhold says making the guide free and accessible is “the best call they could have made.”
“Most people don’t even know about Open Studios because of the cost,” he says. “But if it’s free and available to anybody, there are way more possibilities for people to explore and check it out. Art should be free, and to learn about art should be free, so why are we going to put a price on that?”
Organizers hope that with this new model, Open Studios shakes off any sense of elitism that may have surrounded the program.
“I do think that before, there was an implicit message that [Open Studios] is for people who want to go out and buy art,” says Ostermann. “This is not just about you going out and buying art. If you want to, that’s great, you do have the opportunity to do that, but that’s not the reason we’re doing this.”
Williams adds that with the abundance and diversity of artists, Open Studios is now truly a community-wide event, with “every possible, imaginable artistic discipline.”
“There is something for everyone on this tour,” she says, “and now, it’s open to everybody. There are so many ways to access this and make it your own.”
The Open Studios Art Tour runs the first three weekends in October. For a preview, visit the Open Studios Preview at the Art League. Guides are available in this issue of Good Times, through the Open Studios website, and for $5 in locations around the county. The Open Studios Art Tour app is available for $4.99 through itunes and Google Drive. Using a pay-what-you-want-model, event organizers ask that those who are impressed with the tour consider making a donation to help cover the costs.