Portable Open House 1

BN1 Chat’s with the Organisers of Artist Open Houses

Not all international movements come from grand ideas, some blossom from the simplest of concepts. Back in 1982, artist Ned Hoskins opened his home in Fiveways for people to come, chat and view art by him and his friends. It caught on around the neighbourhood, becoming a regular event. This soon spread to other parts of the city, with Open House events being listed in the Brighton Festival, and later Fringe brochures as part of the city’s cultural offerings. Now artistic communities around the country and further afield have taken up this inclusive grassroots approach to showing work.

“It’s become a worldwide phenomenon now,” says AOH’s Festival Director, Judy Stevens. “But someone in Fiveways had the original idea.” Judy, herself a Brighton-based artist, printmaker and illustrator, ran an open house on the Seven Dials trail for several years with her partner, graphic designer Chris Lord. In 2004, both helped establish Artists Open Houses, developing it as an independent artist-led event in its own right. 

Dion Salvador Lloyd Open-House-2023-scaled

The number of art trails, participating artists and open houses has flourished in recent years. This year is one of the largest ever, with over 180 venues welcoming you. Once confined to just Brighton & Hove, you can find trails along the coast from Portslade to Newhaven, and beyond the South Downs in villages like Ditchling and Hurstpierpoint. “You can walk around areas of the city, or visit parts you’ve not been to before, but also have a nice day out in the countryside…”. While the core premise might be simple, the amount of love and effort going into each venue and the exhibitions is often extraordinary. Judy tells me that most of their visitors enjoy meeting artists or makers and having conversations about works and the idea behind them. There’s an ineffable joy in seeing art in a domestic setting, or even where it was created, which isn’t found going into a possibly less-welcoming, formal setting of a gallery. And, obviously, some people do like looking around artists’ houses.

One artist throwing open her doors during every weekend in May is Sarah Arnett. Last year was the first time for her Little Picture Palace venue; a home and studio on York Avenue overlooking St Ann’s Well Gardens. As well as showing art from herself and five friends, she welcomed visitors into her garden with book readings and music. “It was like a happening,” she tells me. “A mini-festival really. It’s been a good excuse to make a stage… I’m so excited. Last year, the choir I belong to held a Sunday concert here. It was so lovely.” Already, she’s busy with preparations for 2024’s proceedings. The garden is being transformed, with terracing being added and a platform to act as a performance space. “Just the other day, I was wondering what on Earth I’ve started!” Her venue brings together a collection of people, who she refers to as an extended family, including a jewellery artist, a handbag designer and a perfumer, alongside Sarah’s own fine art prints, wallpaper, textiles and clothing.

Amongst the new venues this year is the Portable Open House – essentially a large dolls house transported in a barrow with tiny artworks inside. “Part of that is looking at the affordability of housing in Brighton, and how hard it is to live and work here,” says Judy.  Elsewhere is the Wandering Gallery, a camper van transformed into an arts space and parked in the seafront area. “A lot of visitors like houses where there’s lots of different media, so there might be painters, but also textile artists and ceramicists. There are also venues which will have themes. This year there’s The Dog Show, with a group of people working in different mediums, but around the theme of dogs. That includes sculptures, but there’s also painting dogs onto teabags and a pop-up dog portrait studio. They also have a dog-soundscape.” Another is Figment Arts on Hanningtons Lane, who’ll be exhibiting work around Sussex folklore, and encouraging visitors to make collaborative paintings with them around various local legends.

“Different people like different things. Some visitors like a house with just one artist and learning a lot about them. Others will like places where there’s a lot of variety. Many younger artists work with installation and performance, so quite a few houses are including that.” But there’s also plenty of tradition at AOH.

For over twenty years, Troy Ohlson has been welcoming visitors to Maldon Road’s Trojan House, showing off art and handmade crafts in a relaxed home setting. AOH has also started to become a generational event. Colin Ruffell has long delighted people with his playful paintings of cats. “Both Colin and his wife were some of the original open house artists so their daughter essentially grew up in one.” Now, Shyama Ruffell hosts her own venue on Addison Road, joined by work from a range of artists, often including her parents.

Judy says one of the biggest developments in AOH’s time, apart from the number of artists and venues getting involved, is the quality of work. “There’s some amazing art. It’s also been nice to include more young people and students.”

Judy is adamant about AOH’s credentials as a community event. It involves several schools, university students and there’s quite a few houses showing work from neuro-diverse or learning-disabled artists. There’s also one venue which is a senior resident’s home. “It is all encompassing,” she says. “We aim to encourage artists at all stages of their careers, from those who are just starting out to the established and internationally respected.”

She points out that there’s sadly few places to exhibit work in Brighton and Sussex. “I think the democratisation of Open House is an important feature. It’s quite hard for artists to earn a living. So, it provides a time of the year to work towards and have a large audience coming to see your work and make sales. It does enable some artists to be able to continue their practices.” Because encouraging everybody’s creativity is a huge part of AOH, a lot of the venues also offer workshops to help others to explore their artistic leanings.

There’s also a benefit for hosts in meeting people from their neighbourhood. “I only used to talk to those in the garden flat over the fence,” says Sarah. “But there’s only so far I can shout down the road! Last year, people kept coming up and introducing themselves. I’ve lived here for 27 years, and I’ve never met so many people.” She used to run a fashion store behind the old Ship Street post office, which had a retail space on the ground floor, with a studio upstairs. “I loved that so much. In your own space, people find it less intimidating. You can talk about your practice and your technique. It tells the whole picture.” Opening up her home last May gave her a similar experience, which she’d not felt for a long time.

The Dog Show - photo Syl Ojalla

Buying art in this environment might also provide a greater sense of ownership for the customer. “They’ll remember where it came from,” adds Sarah. “What I’ve found, since doing Open House, is that people are so much more confident in sending an email and asking to come and see work. I’m really lucky that this is my life and job, so it’s nice to be able to share that with people.” 

Trained in woven textiles, Sarah established her own fashion label as well as designing wallpaper. Now working with drawings, she describes herself as an evolving artist. She was chosen to create the cover for AOH 2024’s brochure cover, and is now in the process of having the image woven as a tapestry as a way of recognising where she started.

The conversations are just as beneficial to the artists as they are the audience. “I never realised, until I did some teaching, that there’s nothing like people asking you questions. You’re constantly explaining your work and process.” Normally, she’s just working alone with the process bouncing around in her head. Talking about it for a month, gives her and most other artists a greater sense of placing themselves in the world and a confidence in what they’re doing.

She’s just been sponsored by Brewers Paint with paint and advice (who also support AOH’s Seven Dials trail) to create a mural on the side of her building, along with an outdoor ‘rug’ on her patio. “They’ve given me so much paint and gone back to their people to get all the technical details.”

While many of the artists opening their houses make it look serene and effortless, Sarah tells me she initially had a few jitters about creating a good impression in her first year. “But as soon as people start walking into your house, and they’re so respectful, excited and happy to meet all the makers, it all goes out the window. You want to be as professional as possible… but there is an allowance that you’re trying to get a cake out of the oven, sell a picture and talk to someone. I didn’t know how it would all work, but it was a joy.”

So, what makes the perfect open house? While it’s always a delight to see the expressions of those who’ve never experienced an open house before, Sarah says those who go to AOH shows every year understand the drill. “They know which ones they’ll go to, maybe visit some new ones and where they’ll have their tea and cake. You need to accommodate those who are doing ten in a day, but also those who’ll arrive in the morning, have a gin & tonic, start chatting to a friend and find themselves still here in the evening having dinner with us – which does happen!”

Artists Open Houses comes to venues around Brighton & Hove and across Sussex on Sat 4 – 6 Mon, Sat 11- Sun 12, Sat 18 – Sun 19 and Sat 25 – Mon 27 May.

For more information and details about the participating artists, head to:  www.aoh.org.uk

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