Opening doors to opportunity

 21 March 2011

Craft makers and artists often work alone. Great for focusing the mind, but you can sometimes lose out on the benefits of working in a team. Working with others allows you to access support, bounce around ideas, and pick up on business opportunities.

Ceramicist Alice Maplesden exhibits in Brighton's Artists' Open House.
Ceramicist Alice Maplesden exhibits in Brighton's Artists' Open House.

So how can you start to build up professional relationships and share advice on working as a sole trader? Why not get involved in local open house trails or arts festivals – you could boost your business and learn valuable skills at the same time.

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Many cities and regions have their own Open House trail, such as London, Cambridge, Bristol, Dorset, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight.

The Brighton Artists’ Open Houses trail includes more than 200 houses and studios, most of which host around five to ten exhibitors.

Originally part of the Brighton Festival, the biggest arts festival in England, Artists Open Houses are now an independent organisation. For the second year running, Artists Open Houses will be accompanied by a new visual arts festival: HOUSE, a series of exhibitions curated by respected regional curators.

Ceramicist Alice Maplesden will be one of those exhibiting in Brighton. Having graduated from Contemporary Crafts in 2006, she has been busy building up her contacts and portfolio.

"This year I have finally started to really focus on my art as a business. I thought that Artists Open Houses would be the perfect opportunity to get my work seen by lots of people in exactly the right sort of environment, and to make professional connections."

Business opportunities for artists

"I’ve learnt so much about PR, marketing, sponsorship and grant fundraising. When I first opened up the house, I never would have thought  that, a few years later, I’d be putting together grant applications and helping design websites."

There are good business opportunities in joining an open house trail. Commission rates are often much lower than those charged by commercial galleries, and visitor numbers are consistently high (in 2009, houses on the trail drew over 230,000 individual visits over the eight days).

Artists’ work is showcased on the website and its blogs. It is listed in a brochure and a leaflet map with print runs of 50,000 and 90,000 respectively. With such high exposure, sales follow suit. Some participating artists take as much as a third of their annual income in this period alone.

Aside from the selling opportunities, being part of an open house trail can give you the motivation and support needed to revamp your business all round.

"I’ve really upped my game over the last few months to make sure that I have enough stock for the Open House in May," says Alice. "I’ve extended my range to make the most of the opportunity – lots of people are looking to buy ceramic pieces at events like this. It also gave me the push I needed to finish my website and do all the little but important things like ordering business cards."

New business skills for artists

Joining a local open houses trail is also a great way to glean approaches and tips from others. "In our meetings so far, where all the artists in our open house have come together to plan the event, it’s been really useful to hear how the others have turned their work into a business. I am a relative newcomer, so I need to learn as much from these people as possible."

In addition, most houses require artists to sign up to invigilation/sales desk slots, which can be a great way to learn to deal with the public, brush up your accounting skills, and learn to talk about your own work with potential customers. In Alice’s case, she’ll be holding clay classes in the venue’s garden for visiting children, adding another string to her bow.

It can be extremely worthwhile getting involved in the organisational side of things. Printmaker Judy Stevens has opened up her own house and is the coordinator of Artists Open Houses, which is made up of a mix of paid members and volunteers.

"I’ve learnt so much about PR, marketing, sponsorship and grant fundraising. I never would have thought when I first opened up the house that a few years later I’d be putting together grant applications and helping design websites."

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