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In praise of open studios

In a week that saw yet more record sales at the big art auction houses, it’s worth remembering the many thousands of unsung artists who don’t reach the limelight. While millions were changing hands at auction, artists throughout the country were opening their doors to the public at large.

A Monet water lilies painting was sold for £42 million at Christies last Monday. The other big auction house, Sotheby’s, notched up £102 million worth making a total of £246 million of sales of Impressionist and modern art in just three days.

These fantasy prices reveal that the super-rich are immune from the credit crunch. In the words of one commentator: “The middle-tier buyer who would spend up to a million pounds [!] on a work of art, is cut out of the market.” Public galleries and museums are also being priced out of the market, leaving major works of art in the hands of private collectors.

But as the insecurity-driven, art market bubble keeps on expanding, fuelled by falling shares and the credit crunch, most practising artists are getting on with their lives. And, just now, over the summer months, their work can be appreciated and enjoyed by people with no money at all as studios are thrown open to the public.

For absolutely free, anyone can visit any number of studios, look at paintings, sculpture, ceramics and textiles made by talented and highly trained artists, young and old. Unlike the luxurious auction houses of St James where bidding is dominated by hedge fund owners, Russian billionaires, Chinese industrialists, Indian technology entrepreneurs and Middle Eastern sheiks, here original art works can be admired, discussed and even purchased at low prices.

The advent of artist-owned co-operatives like Space (Space Provision, Artistic, Cultural and Educational) Studios, organised by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgely in 1968, was a pioneering attempt to democratise art production and give artists a space to work. But rising property prices saw commercial factors become increasingly dominant. The famous Space Studios shut down in 2000. Some artists persisted in setting up co-operatives over which they could have control, while others found it easier to operate studios in their own homes. Or they moved to towns or even other countries where low-price spaces could still be found.

Over the last decades more and more artists have continued to group together in a variety of ways - in studio blocks, neighbourhoods or in towns to display their work, meet the public and sell directly to people. At artists’ open studios, there is a democratic spirit, both amongst the creators and the viewers.

Critically acclaimed and successful artists mix and mingle with the unknown and young, subjecting their work to the eyes and comments of anyone who can walk in off the street. Often unsupported by local authorities or sponsors, artists generously offer their time, energy and even refreshments to those who make the effort to drop by.

Just one of many examples is Brockley Open Studios, in south London, which has now been going for 16 years, in which 39 artists opened their homes over the weekend and are keeping them open until this evening. Brockley and other open studios offer a glimpse of the enormous creativity that exists in society at large. Even without great encouragement, people are clearly ready to make sacrifices to do the creative things they consider important. It’s high time that this way of transforming people’s lives was allowed to flourish and spread to society at large.

Corinna Lotz
30 June 2008

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