Last Friday evening, the stretch of Orange Street between Chapel and Crown was choked with activity. A live band cooed into the night air as pedestrians collected near the door of Artspace Gallery. By 8 p.m., roughly 100 visitors were milling about the gallery, rubbing shoulders and bumping into the more than 280 pieces of sculpture, photography and painting around the small gallery. At the back of the showrooms, a handful of guests were crowding around a blown-up map of New Haven, pointing out galleries to visit.
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The hubbub was part of the kick-off celebration for the 13th annual City-Wide Open Studios event, an Artspace-organized event that opens the doors of local studios to visitors for three weekends, giving the public a glimpse of the visual arts network in the city. Each weekend has a special program to guide art aficionados through the open studios, showcasing the work of more than 400 artists from New Haven and nearby towns.
“The event is really the only major event that focuses on artists,” Artspace director Helen Kauder said Thursday afternoon as she ran between final errands before the opening. “It’s unique.”
Indeed for artists, the event provides a one-of-a-kind chance to interact with a mass audience, drumming up interest in their craft and driving up sales for the studios. As three local artists interviewed said, the event is the only outlet some have to tapping into the mass public.
For example, local found-object sculptor Silas Finch estimated that his gallery receives somewhere between one to two new visitors each weekend, while upwards of 150 guests have come to his gallery during Open Studios for the past five years.
“This is a great opportunity for people to really meet artists,” Greater New Haven Arts Council executive director Cynthia Clair said. “Not just buying a piece off the wall, but meeting the artists helps artists sell much more works than they would normally sell.”
But though the event is a significant boon for artists, it is difficult to repeat an effort of this scale throughout the year, Kauder said. The cost of the project, which last year totaled near $100,000, is a difficult sum to raise more than once a year. Kauder added that much of the appeal of the event is in its rarity, noting that visitors may be less enthusiastic about attending if they knew they would have another chance to see it.
Aside from the local visitors, Lou Cox — the owner and founder of Channel 1, the retail boutique and gallery space on 220 State St. — said the event is an important way for the city’s artists to reach out to those outside of New Haven. He said that in his past five years participating in the event, he had met a number of artists and buyers from rich art scenes like that of New York City, helping him network and draw interest to his New Haven shop.
In fact, the year before he started showing at Open Studios, Finch said he had come to the event as a tourist to see others’ artwork. At the time, he held a studio in Cape Cod. His visit to New Haven convinced him to move away from his waterside studio to an apartment in the city, where he found a thickly interconnected community of artists willing to cooperate and support each other.
Beyond the crowds and bands, Finch said the highlight of the event is its ability to showcase the cultural fabric of New Haven — a city that he, along with seven other artists and organizers interviewed, said is rich with artists and opportunity.
“We call it the golden ghetto,” Finch said. “It’s got a heart of gold, but the neighborhoods around it are bad.”
Artspace, in association with local bike shop the Devil’s Gear, also organizes weekend bike tours to guide visitors around nearby studios.