Open-studio tours help bring the work of artists into the public eye — but are they a force in economic development?
Painters, potters, jewelry makers, glass blowers, handcrafted-furniture makers, fabric artists, photographers, weavers, instrument makers, sculptors.
As distinctive a voice as these folks can have, are they a breed apart?
Not really, says Martha Fitch, executive director of the Vermont Crafts Council, which holds crafts tours in the fall and spring that run the length of the state. She says artists are too often romanticized, if anything.
“You hear people talk about artists as if they are these very talented, rarified beings: that these are people who are born with a talent that is arcane and not available to everyone,” she says.
That attitude is not accurate, and not very helpful to the artist,” Fitch says:
“People look at them as if, ‘We’re not like them.’ It’s true that you have to have a proclivity for [art], but that comes down mainly to training: spending long hours learning how to do something.”
According to Fitch, the more realistic picture is that the arts in Vermont are part of a healthy diversity of small businesses — and that demystifying artists would serve artists, their patrons, and the wider community.
“On one hand, you have people going to crafts fairs who say, ‘My 5-year old could do that,’” Fitch says. “Or, ‘Did you actually make that?’ Or, reacting to a price tag, ‘How long did it take you to make that?”
If an artist tells a patron it took five hours, that answer completely sidesteps the truth: that building the muscle memory, context, voice, and precision required to turn out a meaningful piece is built on the back of 20 years of painstaking work in the studio, she says.
After all that time, “Many ideas don’t pan out, and then [finally] I did this, and it did work, and it took five hours,” — but how do you charge for that real value? How do you explain that? Fitch says.
“Artists are not mysterious people. It may be hard to relate to the career choice of a professional artist. But when people come to the studio and see how hands-on and practical it is, it demystifies it in a good way,” she adds.
The best way to understand what goes into art or craft — both their personal side and their fact as ventures — is to visit a working studio, Fitch says.
And that’s where the proliferation of crafts tours in Vermont comes in.
Enter the Vermont Crafts Council
For 21 years, the Vermont Crafts Council has run an annual spring tour responsible for attracting some 9,000 visitors to studios statewide. It has now added a second tour in the fall, and attendance is growing, says Fitch.
Windham County, rich in artistic vision, talent, and craftsmanship, hosts about five popular crafts tours spaced throughout the calendar.
The oldest is the Putney Crafts Tour, which will have its 35th anniversary this Thanksgiving weekend. It’s the oldest continuous crafts tour in the United States, and has served as a prototype for tours nationwide: It was a model for the Vermont Crafts Council as it put together its own tours.
Against that background, artists only have a few ways to market their goods: One, they can pack up and haul their work to crafts shows — wholesale, retail or both — where they set up displays.
Those at the top of their field — and there are many in Southern Vermont — have already garnered collectors, so gallery owners (whom they can meet at crafts fairs) are willing to afford them one-person or group shows.
Two, artists can open their homes on tours and invite customers and the just-plain-curious inside, and there they enjoy a home field advantage.
As Fitch explains, all studios have a business plan for the year: a “smorgasbord of marketing and production, and they have to balance all of that. Then they have to manage their inventory to see what goes out to galleries, what they can take to shows, what they have to produce for the tours.”
It’s just not a question of whether people will open their studio to the public, but — like any business — finding that right mix of things that work.
“It’s complicated,” Fitch says, adding that this should help make it relatable to anyone else who’s ever sweated out a business plan.
From the artist’s perspective, craft tours are a great way to meet potential collectors in the privacy and tranquility of the studio, and engage their curiosity and joy in seeing something beautiful take shape, or something novel being refined from disparate elements.
Not every artist is cut out for a tour, Fitch admits. First of all, they have to clean their houses and organize their studio, which takes time away from the work. Then an artist has to be something of an extrovert.
Some are cut out for it, she finds from long experience, and some aren’t.
From the tourist’s perspective, tours are a way to meet many artists, see how they really live and work, and possibly buy something lovely and interesting that captures their personality.
They see what goes into the work. Moreover, they see this — be it sculpture or furniture-making or painting or weaving — is something people do, and it’s just a different kind of expertise than they may have.
Or they may recognize themselves in it, from a path not chosen. The intimacy of an artist’s studio can make that possible.
They will get back to you
Christine Triebert, owner of Rock River Studio in South Newfane and one of the founders of the Rock River tour, says artists might not make many sales from the actual tour, but that’s OK.
“People see your work who wouldn’t see it otherwise. Maybe they’ll get back to you and buy something later. That happens often,” she says.
According to Triebert, this definitely applies to people who sell higher-priced items:
“They’re not an impulse buy. People may look at a piece of handcrafted furniture and then go home and measure, and think about it.”
Smaller-priced items such as ceramics, cards, and prints, he says, sell “pretty regularly” on the tour.
“We had one year when one of our artists sold a $10,000 painting on the spot. Those are really happy moments,” she says with a smile.
The benefits radiate
Randi Ziter, innkeeper and owner of The Putney Inn in Putney since 1978, is a lifelong resident of Windham County and active on many civic and cultural boards. She’s a fervid supporter of the Putney Crafts Tour, she says, not only for the artisans’ benefit, but also because it’s an economic engine for the many other businesses catering to tourists: bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and gas stations and the like.
“Beyond my small hotel, the tour has a dramatic impact,” Ziter says. “It exemplifies the whole image of Vermont: quality artisans and quality crafters. It keeps Putney on the map even in times other than the tour,” she says.
Ziter adds that Putney is “very dependent on making a name for ourselves and calling attention to ourselves. Economically, I see a little bit of an impact in our dining room, but it comes at a time when we’re really busy as a residual to Thanksgiving.”
In what she calls “the larger, macro part of things,” the fair is huge: “It’s a whole identity thing. It establishes us. It gives us credibility as a community.”
Building on lessons learned
Potter Ken Pick arrived in Putney in 1969 to get a graduate degree in teacher of English as a second language. But pottery was never far from his heart, and in about 1973 he began to earn his living from his craft. He is one of the founders of the Putney Craft Tour.
“There are still five or six of us here who were here from the beginning,” Pick says. “We banded together in one location before we evolved the tour concept. It got more sophisticated as time went on.”
This year, he says, the tour boasts 26 artists, though it’s never featured more than 28.
“There was a conceptual agreement that that size was good. We wanted to bring in new young people who arrived in the area,” he explains.
Organizing the tour starts in January. Planners evaluate the previous year’s tour and make adjustments as needed. They they work to attract 3,000 to 5,000 people for the three-day weekend.
“The [artists] further out in the hills see fewer people than the people who live closer to town. Location and weather have something to do with [a tour’s success], but we’ve never had a tour that didn’t happen because of the weather,” Pick says.
He adds that the dates of the Thanksgiving weekend tour were chosen carefully — that’s the start of the holiday gift-buying season.
And, because it’s Thanksgiving, “there are a lot of people visiting family from all over the country,” Pick says. “People are coming from all over the New England states. Most are actually non-Vermonters. They come from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.”
Always looking ahead to the next year, the tour maintains a large mailing list. And as the Putney artists attend crafts shows around the country, they bring their tour brochures with them to spread the word.
The art and craft of getting the word out
Most folks agreed publicity is the biggest challenge.
“How do you get the word out beyond the local area?” Christine Triebert asked rhetorically.
“We love local people coming into our studios, but a lot of people have been here before and are familiar with our work. We’re always looking for fresh eyes, so bringing people in is always the challenge.”
She says the tour’s — and her own — websites are vital, and must be maintained with new images. She says writing compelling press releases newspaper editors can consider as seeds of arts features are vital, as is a grasp of social media.
She also says “Signage is huge. You have to make sure people can find their way around comfortably. You need maps and posters and signs. We all pay dues every year that goes towards maintaining the website and putting out postcards to our mailing list. … All that stuff has to be in place,” she says.
Too many tours?
Studio tours give artists entree to new collectors and help collectors see that art is approachable and worth its price. But some artists complain that there are too many tours. They argue the proliferation dilutes the visitor pool and “is bad for business.”
It’s understandable, Fitch says, though she says, from what she’s seen, that’s not the way it works.
“Everyone would like to think that their tour is the one bringing in visitors,” Fitch says, adding that more options, not fewer, is the greater benefit to artists, collectors, and communities.
Indeed, artists who argue that a wealth of tours dilutes attention assume that the only reason to hold them is to sell work. And that’s not what’s going on, Fitch says:
“We’re seeking to inform the community of visitors, 60 percent of whom live in Vermont, about the lifestyle of our artists and craftspeople,” and create deeper understanding, and broader economic opportunity, in the process.
Sidebar: The Putney Craft Tour beginnings:
The stars have always been there. It just took someone with special vision and a sense of story to knit them into constellations. So it is with the Putney Craft Tour, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, featuring 26 artists who’ll open their studios for a self-guided tour along idyllic country roads on Thanksgiving weekend.
The artists had been there, drawn into creative orbit in and around Putney in the late 1960s and early-70s for many reasons, including the back-to-the-land movement, the rise of American craft, and the powerful cluster of creative souls brought there by Windham College, the Yellow Barn Music Festival, The Putney School, and the Experiment in International Living.
From this swirl of creative stars, local woodcut artist and business owner Margot Torrey was among the first to see a constellation, and in 1978, around her dining room table, the initial gathering of what was then known as the Putney Artisans League made plans for the Putney Artisans Festival. The timing was right.
“People were just beginning to find the tremendous value of crafts. I wanted to have the citizens of Putney see who made these things,” Torrey said.
In truth, Torrey wasn’t the only person to see the value in this. The Mischkes and the Eddys had already welcomed people to their studios, growing their customer base right where they worked. They remain mainstays of the Putney Craft Tour to this day.
What Torrey did was really more evolutionary than revolutionary. The Putney Craft Tour, though unique at the time and distinct to this day, did not spring out of a vacuum but rather from the happy confluence of a number of trends.
No doubt Vermont’s agrarian heritage created a culture of craft and an appreciation of the handmade which remains to this day.
More to the point, Vermont was at the forefront of discussions championing craft as art. In 1938, Aileen Osborne Webb invited artisans and groups with a vested interest in crafts to a meeting in Shelburne. By the end of their three days together, they had agreed to form the Handcraft Cooperative League of America, the first national organization of craft. That organization would evolve to become the American Craft Council.
“It can be argued that Vermont served as the birthplace of the modern American craft movement,” wrote Jamie Franklin and Anne Majusiak, curators of “State of Craft,” an 2010 exhibit at the Bennington Museum.
In the cultural foment of the ’60s and ’70s, impulses toward self-sufficiency and back-to-the-land fused with rejections of the industrial and the artificial, further feeding the supply of artisans who came to Vermont’s quiet towns and backroads to live and work.
Some of those crafters were the ones Torrey gathered around her table in 1978, and some are still on the Putney Craft Tour, along with those, like Edel Byrne, who moved to Putney in 2001 out of a “desire to live in a vibrant arts and crafts community.”