Behind the Scenes

Art at London's Open Studios

5 JULY 2017,
2016 Bow Open Show, curated by Anj Smith, courtesy Nunnery Gallery, photographer Rob Harris
2016 Bow Open Show, curated by Anj Smith, courtesy Nunnery Gallery, photographer Rob Harris

Beyond the pizzazz of the art auction house, far removed from the glamorous, city art galleries and miles from the national art museums, are the modest lodgings of the artist's studio. Contrasting dramatically to where artworks are publicly displayed, this is the grubby place of making it. Normally in a run down building. Nearly always without heating. And often an ex-factory of some sort destined for eventual demolishment.

Open Studios are a long running, grass roots practice giving visitors direct access to the artist in their home of production. They function as behind the scenes, socially relaxed and shared environments, far departed from their 17th century Parisian intellectual origins. In London, the open studio hangs onto its existence and, despite the odds, some programmes continue to thrive.

Marcel Baettig, founder and Chief Executive of Bow Arts, ignored the Arts Council's 1998 warnings that open studios were no longer relevant. Along with his team, he's built a successful and much anticipated annual event, or, in his words, 'a cacophony of culture and fun'. Commenting just prior to this year's 22nd Bow Arts Open he stated that more than '4,000 visitors came to our open studio events last year and we are expecting more in 2017 ... 120 top artists, designers and makers will open their doors to the public. Alongside we host a fantastic makers’ market, street food vendors, several wacky bars and great live music. They say the Bow Arts Open is like the 60s – if you can remember it, you weren’t really there!'

SPACE is another major player housing 750 artists across its multiple sites. Started in a docklands warehouse in the late 60s by the now famous Bridget Riley, Peter Sedgley and Henry Moore, SPACE run their annual open studio programme alongside onsite exhibitions, residencies, bursaries and training programmes, all with the intention of making the artist's practice sustainable.

East London Printmakers, a longstanding open studio participant, welcomes a 'whole host of people from different backgrounds and walks of life, which perfectly reflects just how diverse (the appeal of) printmaking can be.' ELP's Susan Clarke reported that many of their regular open access users, workshop attendees, tutors and even staff had their first introduction to ELP at an open studio.

Some organisations enhance their open studio offering with an onsite gallery. Bow Arts support their artists with a selective residents' showcase in their onsite gallery, the Nunnery. This year Artists Studio Company's UNIT 3 Projects hosted a group exhibition 'Small is Beautiful More and Less'. With over 60 small images and objects from residents and their invited guest artists, its purpose was to create a temporary community emphasising the fragility of individuals and their strength in numbers. Artist John Bunkers, regular contributor to online journal AbCrit, resides at ASC Bow and often curates at UNIT 3. He views it as a 'rare beast indeed' to be 'unencumbered by the pressures of a private gallery's commercial imperatives and the bureaucracy of proposals and selection processes often encountered in public sector art institutions'.

ASC's head office also have their own, well-established, ASC Gallery. The non-commercial space run by Darren O'Brien presents the opportunity to have more experimental curatorial programmes where diversity can be prioritised. O'Brien explained a recent exhibition which arose from a conversation with ASC resident artist Christina Neiderberger.

It so happened that Peter De Francia, a painter and once head of the Royal College, had lived nearby. So ASC Gallery worked with his widow to gather and eventually exhibit his plethora of ephemera. From correspondence with the late John Burger to elephant statuettes sourced on Indian travels, De Francia's collection was arranged in museum-style display cases and united with the blue colour of workmen's overalls. This sort of non-profit event would struggle to find a place beyond the studio gallery.

As for the future of open studios, a Greater London Authority 2014 report estimated that over 30% of studio sites will disappear within five years. Arts Council England state they are 'seeing the effect of rising property prices both in London and other major cities having an impact on arts and cultural organisations and their workspaces' with some artists moving out to regional areas. Add to that the increase in online art sales - over 8% according to Hiscox Online Art Trade 2017 - plus over ten major art fairs in London, and it is a wonder the open studio continues to survive at all. The future path of the open studio seems uncertain. Its place, albeit shifting, is perhaps more assured. Though it is a place where studio organisations will need to create a compelling destination, well worth the outer zone train fare.