Earlier this year, with preparations for May’s Artists Open Houses well underway, the first iteration of the 2020 festival was cruelly halted. A trail predicated on visiting homes is, it’s fair to imagine, particularly hampered by the intermittent banning of indoor mixing, which is essentially how you might concisely describe the idea. That disappointment dealt with, it was time to focus on making a later edition to be proud of.
“It has been a really challenging time, although it has also led to some great new innovations and developments,” says Judy Stevens, the director of the much-loved concept that has been forced to adapt but has now been able to open some of its doors for eight days, as well as curate an extensive and typically eclectic online strand. “We rescheduled for November and December, and then the second lockdown hit us.
“Our focus has had to move away from a reliance on printed brochures. They are still a loved and critical plank of our marketing, but they are very much set in stone once printed, so they’re not well adapted to the fluid nature of events that we have had to contend with and embrace. Because of that, we have needed a slight shift in focus to concentrate on on-street marketing, posters, billboards and directing audiences to the website, which we’ve regularly updated. Our aim has been getting the message out there in the best, most visible ways.”
Sometimes their plans have been forced to change on a daily basis, and the digital aspects of the festival, from a website and marketing point of view, have evolved more quickly and comprehensively than they were previously. Snoopers can still chat to artists in their homes – “a really valued element of the experience”, as Stevens knows – but online behind-the-scenes tours, insights and stories, frequently told through films in which artists talk about their work and approach, are now vital in providing the personal touch.
While not all of the artists have gone virtual, with some preferring to concentrate on a potential May reopening, plenty have. “We all hope things may be a little closer in nature to how they were,” says Stevens, looking ahead.
“For many, though, the festival is a major selling platform and significant source of income, connecting artists and makers with buyers, collectors and galleries. 2020 has been a hard year for everyone, but especially for those in the arts and creative industries, so the new online platforms can be a lifeline in the current circumstances.”
The houses, as usual, make time and distance seem like sharp hindrances: everything from an award-winning glass studio to 11 artists in a former coal shop and a cabinet of curiosities inside a jewellery workshop, spread across Brighton and further into Sussex. Then there are more than 50 online galleries, lined up in a collective antidote to dull gift ideas, and video chats with more than 15 artists, including Brighton resident David Shrigley, who has worked with arts and cultural projects across the city.
“He offered his time to make use of in any way we choose,” explains Stevens, outlining a partnership that has also led to Shrigley detailing a student exhibition in a toilet, as well as dispensing the sage advice of just getting on with creating. “We suggested he worked with us on our projects with students, and young and emerging artists.
“His workshops and tutorials had to be conducted via Zoom, but the participants felt it focused minds and made the best use of the time available. He is amazing and provided a huge amount of insight, support and inspiration for the young artists taking part.”
Artists Open Houses – Winter 2020, In Person until Sun Dec 13th, online until Thurs Dec 31.
Photos: Courtesy Artists Open Houses and the artists
Words: Ben Miller