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Omphaloskepsis Blog

How to talk to your studio visitors: Advice from the trenches.

Jan 12, 2014

In March last year I reprinted the blog How to talk to artists. For the past nine years I’ve been holding my studio open for visitors in Boston, New York and Seattle. Because my mission as an artist is to create a fertile ground for my audience to have experiences, to connect with the work and to others, and to feel, I believe strongly in opening my studio and sharing my work. During this time I’ve noticed that talking to artists, talking about art, and interactions between intense, sensitive people can be a challenge. That’s why I felt reproducing How to talk to artists was so valuable. Thank you Gail Gregg for allowing me to repost your excellent work!

Upon reading that blog, one artist left a request, next blog…how an artist talks to their audience. This blog is for you…all of you.

Even though I’ve been holding my studio open for nearly a decade, I don’t consider myself an expert, which is why I enlisted the collective experience of my esteemed colleagues. The following is a result of that conversation with artist Robert Hargrave (RH), painter Barbara Noonan (BN), artist and curator Laurie LeClair (LL) and myself (KV)

I welcome your experiences and lessons too and encourage you to leave your remarks, advice and anecdotes in the comments section.


(Above) Social Art in Kate Vrijmoet's studio, Twisted Twister. (Thumbnail) Barbara Noonan, Pastel and wash on paper, Solace

Why bother?

I’ve learned a few things in the time I’ve been holding my studio open especially during my tenure with First Thursday Art Walk. It’s been wonderful practice for a socially challenged introvert like myself. I’ve made great strides improving my ability to connect with my audience, as well as expanding my social and conversational skills. I’ve had practice honing my story, communicating key points about my work, putting people at ease and dodging bullets both in and out of the studio. The practice and preparation of opening my studio on a regular basis has equipped me for all sorts of social situations. KV

It keeps you in touch with an ever-growing number of people who might otherwise not see your art, especially if you are part of a larger group event where you all mutually benefit from each other’s visitors. It gives you the opportunity to learn and practice ease at dealing with and talking to the public. You get the dress rehearsal for the gallery and public shows you hope to have. Regularly scheduled open studio events give you routines and deadlines to work with, to keep you and your art brain on your toes and in the habit of work. And mostly, unless you are really inhibited by shyness, open studio events are really fun and exhilarating. People are fascinated by artists’ studios and love an opportunity to visit them and you get to have your day in the sun. LL

Making connections with others from artists to admirers to collectors. It's all rewarding. RH

When I open up my studio, I’m always grateful for the feedback I receive on my work, both from fellow artists and from the general public. I value the opinions expressed and I appreciate when my visitors understand what I’m trying to convey. I'm grateful for the opportunity to hear feedback. BN


Laurie LeClair, Lycee (detail) Mixed media installation, 108 x 108 x 18"

People get ready

Being ready for your studio visitors is most important. RH

Figure out in advance what you want to say about your art so you’re ready to answer questions clearly and free of “inside” jargon. Be willing to tell people a bit about your medium and your approach (technique) and yourself as an artist if they ask. LL

Prepare the way

It’s a distraction to take the time away from working to straighten up. But I found that it’s necessary, a tidy space really helps people feel comfortable. RH

People really seem to enjoy seeing works in progress and seeing an artist’s history and asking questions about it, so I also always have other works around—some in progress as well as slightly older works. In addition to being interesting, this makes it clear that my studio is not just a shop – very important to an artist’s image and credibility! – It’s a place of ongoing artistic exploration and experimentation. LL

Spread the word

Put up a clearly visible artist’s statement for the benefit of those too shy to ask questions. Also put up a clearly visible price list if work is for sale. People often find it embarrassing to ask how much art costs. I try to keep my prices as low as possible; imagining that it will probably be people like me who are looking at them and maybe wishing they could buy them. What amount would I be able and willing to pay? LL

Provide them enough information on the walls that they can read so they don't have to ask. Some people don't feel comfortable asking. I try to make sure the artwork is labeled and lit properly. I also try to post enough information about my technique and the benefits of collecting original art. Shy visitors don’t always feel comfortable asking. BN

Facilitate discovery

Having work ready for folks to view is also a good plan. People enjoy looking through the flat files. It makes the discovery seem special. RH

Lately I’ve started leaving some drawers in my flat files open for buyers to investigate. It gives  them a place to feel like they are discovering a secret or special art object. BN

Santa Claus is coming to town (so break out those cookies and carrots).

Have delicious cookies or candy available. RH

I ALWAYS offer hospitality: simple snacks and beverages. That gets people staying and looking longer and it’s also the friendly thing to do. LL

Recruit help

It's good to have someone else with you when it is busy. My wife sometimes helps me out when the studio is packed. She knows my processes and the day-to-day struggles or triumphs. If someone wants to take all your time, I just excuse myself and move to the next person. RH


Robert Hargrave, Pele, Acrylic and thread on burlap, 4' x 3'

You 'da man!

Why do people come to open studios? I think about why artists are important and I’ve learned one answer to this through direct experience. Living my creative life fully and joyfully gives people hope, courage and permission to find their own creative voice and express it. Now I know why artists are important blog post. KV

Artist Lena Levin wrote about Kandinsky: “The role of artist, for him, is to provide "spiritual food" to his contemporaries, who strive for this food, consciously or, more often, unconsciously. So the quality of this spiritual food is the responsibility of the artist: if they rely on their best, most genuine, inner thoughts and feelings, they'll make something healthy for the souls of their contemporaries (even though not easy to "digest"), something that will help these contemporaries move higher up in the triangle, and by extension, contribute to the overall forward movement of the triangle itself. If, however, they rely on their baser feelings (or needs) and make food that is easy to digest, this might bring them fame and money, but the food would be poison to those who could have made more spiritual effort and reach higher. The artist's talent, in this view, is a heavy burden of responsibility, too easily misused. It requires constant effort not to fall down in this triangle and not to lead your audience down the same path.”

I came to my art career later than most and know how much happier I was after adding creativity again. I guess I hope they find something that gets them "hooked". Last month a man approached me and told me that his visit to my studio was years ago but that he recalled how happy and inviting I was to the group. He felt welcome and sensed my joy in doing what I loved. Not only did he take the time to tell me this and make my day, he then proceeded to purchase a painting. BN


Barbara Noonan, Surges and rushes, pastel and wash on paper, 29 x 29"

Spread the love—joy is contagious

Make them feel welcome—smile. Many visitors are artists. I encourage conversations with them, it builds a bridge for a deeper connection.  BN

Be friendly and accessible. I am gregarious and enjoy meeting and talking to people at the annual Open Studio event at my artists’ building. I like to project a welcoming atmosphere in my studio, a place where people can be comfortable poking around and asking questions if they want to. LL

Go with the flow. KV

Be interested, not interesting. KV


Kate Vrijmoet, Table Saw Accident, latex on canvas, 59 x 50"

Inquiring minds want to know

Treat people like they are intelligent and capable of grasping what you’re up to in your studio even if they don’t know much about art. Art is like any other discipline. Some people know more about it than others and there’s always something more to learn. There are no stupid questions. LL

Recently I began sharing my studio with another artist and I was quite surprised to become aware of something I didn’t even know I was doing. When I watched Karen Hackenberg interact with visitors she did so with poise, confidence and authority. She took charge from the moment they walked in the door with the correct assumption that they were there to see her work and learn some interesting things. In contrast, I realized that I was still apologizing for being an artist. Not directly, but in very subtle ways in my choices. I know I’m not alone; it’s a topic of conversation that comes up quite a bit. Stop apologizing. Assume your audience is interested because they are. They’ll listen and they want to be engaged and informed. When you take charge, they’ll follow. I know this through my social artwork. For example, during one audience participation piece I put crumpled money on the floor in the corner. The rule was that whomever picked it up had to put down more than they picked up regardless of their intention. When someone tried to return it to me, I told them the rules and they complied, when someone tried to steal it, I told them the rules and they complied. It was a very fun and funny evening and I had the lesson reinforced, when you take command in your studio, people will go along. In her recent newsletter, ArtBiz Coach Alyson Stanfield has some good things to say on this topic: "When you stop apologizing for your art . . . when you stop waffling on your purpose . . . others begin to view you as an artist. And even though you may not be perfectly comfortable with the title, this buy-in from others will help build your confidence." KV

Most people have an idea of why they are in your studio. Follow what they are leaning towards and don't force what you are interested in on them. I have had three sorts of studio visits. Singular visits with one or two people, studio openings where many people come through throughout the day/evening and visits with classrooms where the teachers bring their students. My favorites are with the students. Practical issues come up from what media to use for certain techniques to the business side of a studio practice. Mutual learning occurs. RH

I get the most out of interacting with my visitors by laughing, teaching, and showing. Sharing information on technique and supplies provides them a better sense of what I’ve accomplished and a greater appreciation. Because I also teach this allows me to potentially gain more students. I give them some the paper and pastels and let them try it out. People are curious by nature. BN


Laurie LeClair, Quiet Box, Mixed Medium and sound, 50 x 16 x 20"

People don’t remember what you say. People don’t remember what you do. People remember how you make them feel.

I keep this in mind when interacting with my visitors because it’s important to put people at ease. I want them to leave feeling good, especially in light of my challenging work. One of the ways I do this is by turning the conversation back to them. If they want to engage with me but they appear to be at a loss regarding what to say or ask, I ask them about themselves. This works for me because I really am interested in people and their lives - so my interactions are genuine. KV


Robert Hargrave, Knot, Ink on paper 72 x 78"

Stay off the high horse

Early on in my Seattle Open Studio tenure a young woman came into my studio with a camera. She was very excited and asked me if she could take a picture. I was quite flattered. Of course I said yes. She then turned to my orange curtains and turquoise chair and snapped a few shots, crossed the room without looking at any of the artwork, and thanked me as she waved goodbye over her shoulder - exiting my studio. That was a reality check! KV

One time I had a painting on the easel, which was a work in progress. A family came up and thought they could help themselves to the pastels and started working on the painting. One young man drew a sun and a rainbow… his sibling helped. I had to laugh. BN

I get many strong reactions to my work. I see this as being successful in my mission. Occasionally the reactions are strongly negative. Furthermore, the Accident Paintings series seems to have a gender bias, both in that they appear to appeal to more men than women and in that more often the audience thinks a man painted them. That’s probably why people sometimes make comments to me about the work before they realize I AM the artist. I just go with the flow. It’s rare that someone’s intention is to insult you or hurt your feelings. Moreover, when they perceive themselves as having made a faux pas they’re embarrassed. This is your chance to show how graceful you are, to let them leave feeling good. A group of women came into my studio and said “Oh, she must really hate men!” I knew they were unaware that I was standing right behind them. I just guffawed and said, “Yes! That’s husband 1, husband 2 and husband 3!” And we all recovered and had a great conversation. KV


Barbara Noonan, Dream Homes

Visitors are your consumers before they’re your customers

Cultivate relationships with your visitors, they'll come back and consume the work many times before they decide to purchase, as it should be. I have noticed that many artists make sales during open gallery hours the day or two following open studios. If it makes logistical sense for you given the location of your studio, you may want to consider keeping your door open for gallery hours during those times. KV

Sales sometimes happen over a few visits. RH

My strategy has been to have a day job—much as I bemoan the drudgery, it has freed me from having to try to make a living at my art and being forced to consider the sale-ability of every inspiration I have. I want the absolute freedom to follow my nose in my studio, undeterred by money considerations. I would prefer to have a relationship with a commercial gallery who worried about that kind of thing on my behalf once they had decided it was worthwhile to take on my work. LL


Kate Vrijmoet, Rememeber, ours is the animal eye, Oil on canvas, 45 x 54"

Extricating yourself from awkward situations:

You want to take pictures?

I know some artists are sensitive about this. When they see someone taking pictures they ask them to stop. I don’t. My work is for people to think, learn and connect. I want them to take pictures. They could be a student who just likes the work or is doing a project. The work might fit in with a story they have with a friend or family member. They could be an art buyer or gallerist. They could be a writer or a collector. It doesn’t matter to me if they take the photos. If I have the opportunity to, I will gracefully ask them that if they post the image anywhere, they give me credit for the work. KV

Do I know you? What to do if you forget someone's name.

That happens, but I just let them know I don't remember them. As an artist you meet so many people. It's impossible to remember everyone. I have found Facebook to be handy in that respect. It helps me remember people I haven't even met yet. RH

This happens to me pretty often actually, especially in my day-job where I meet hundreds of people, many of whom are artists and arts professionals—not exactly the folks I want to alienate by forgetting who they are. I used to rack my brain and try to side step using a name. If there were a common acquaintance around I would try to get them to clue me in. But anymore, in the absence of other help, I just say out right “You know, I am so sorry, I am having one of those embarrassing moments—isn’t that awful? Could you remind me of where we met before and what your name is? I promise not to forget again.” Chances are they’ll come back with similar tale of their own because it happens to everyone. LL

This happens to me all the time and it can feel embarrassing. One thing I do to help myself is to keep a small notepad or folded piece of paper and scribble down people’s names and a description and a snippet of our conversation to review at the end of the night. But sometimes someone comes in month after month and they feel like they know you. You might recognize them. I have several approaches to this scenario: 1. If I’m talking in a group I ask people to introduce each other 2. I admit I’ve forgotten and ask them for their name 3. If its someone I know well, and I know that I know them well I might either ignore it or laugh and admit I’m having a farkle (brain fart). 4. When someone comes in and interacts with me as if we have an established relationship and know each other well, and I can’t even recognize their face, then I don’t say anything about it. I don’t want to embarrass them or me in that situation because even if they tell me their name, I’m still racking my brain to remember our relationship instead of participating in the conversation. So, I let it go. KV

Which way do I go, George?

Open Studio events, when they get crowded, are like other big receptions—they race by in a blur and it’s almost impossible to start and finish a satisfactory conversation. I try not to get too wrapped up with any one person—which can be a bit tricky if there’s a sale in the offing! —I keep my eye on who’s coming and going and if they’re waiting to talk to me and I circulate as much as possible. Sometimes I just laughingly say to someone very frankly “well, you can imagine how hectic this is—we’ll have to finish up this chat some time soon!” If you can play around with people and make them laugh you can usually avoid offending someone or making them feel brushed off. I always thank people for coming even if I haven’t been able to talk to them. You just have to be on your toes and keep your eyes open. LL

Introduce people to one another. An open studio is not a good place for private conversations, if you see someone lingering, and waiting to get your attention, change your body language to include them in the conversational space, then thank them for being there and introduce them to the people you’re talking to, or, if you’re more like me, have a hard time remembering names, ask them to introduce each other. KV

If I see someone who is spending a bit more time in front of a piece or is a bit more attentive, I will excuse myself from friends. Or I may try to move the conversation closer to them and include them in the discussion.  BN

Who's that?

I was lucky: it was drilled into me from an early age by my parents that I had to learn how to talk to and interact comfortably with strangers—my father was a diplomat and they thought it was vital to our well-being in the world to know how to talk with people of all different stripes. As a result I don’t see anyone as strange or intimidating and I never see anyone as “above” me. I was also lucky because I never was shy to begin with. But you always screw up some time or other. The thing I have learned – I hope—is how to diffuse a potentially volatile interaction before it gets bad or gets worse. How to back up and/or put a full stop to it by walking away from it – even if it makes you look and feel like you lost. I had an opportunity to do this in my day-job life recently with a person who simply wanted to be mad and didn’t want to hear. I didn’t have the bandwidth to spare for that so I just cut it off, as frustrating as it was. I’m glad I did because it was a lose-lose thing. LL


Laurie LeClair, Fete detail, Hat, Mixed medium installation, 9 x 12 x 5"


I like to take myself to a good sauna the day after. Standing on the concrete floor for 5 hours and interacting with hundreds of people, while it can be entertaining, fun, exciting, informative, joyful…it also take a lot of energy. One way I recuperate is to relax in the heat and water. In Seattle we have some saunas and bathhouses. I like to go to the Banya. KV


Robert Hargrave, Continuum, Collage on paper, 30 x 22

Parting advice

Have a guest book and ask people to sign it. This helps you remember who was there, and connects you with your natural audience when they offer their email address. You’re mailing list is one of your most important assets. It helps you build your team, people who support your work and want to see you succeed. Always always make an effort to ask people for their email address. Sharing your growth is the way you let them participate and being receptive is their gift to you. People want to cheer you on. KV

Be yourself. Have humility. Be open to everyone. Be gracious. Have delicious cookies or candy available. RH

I'm a huge fan of doing a demonstration or working on a painting to draw viewers in. I encourage them to ask questions about my process and/or I'll verbally state what I'm doing. BN

Being an artist is a privileged but usually difficult life—like being a monk. Unless you are designing your art specifically to market—and even if you are—for a while at least, and maybe for all your life, you are probably going to have to have a day job to support yourself. Most of us do and the rent is always due. So get some kind of training early on that will enable you to get by without hating your life. It is always going to be hard to balance your day job with your studio time but that’s the story of being an artist and it’s important to accept that. If you really mean to be an artist, you’ll figure it out. But it will always be hard. Alternately, if you aren’t troubled by too many scruples, you can be on the lookout for a rich professional to support you—like a lawyer or a doctor—who is happy to have you stay in your studio. But this does not always pan out happily so it isn’t part of my advice. A caveat: I have learned that it is dangerous to your studio life to love your day job too much—it can lead to putting your art on a back burner and even to abandoning your art altogether. It’s a hard line to walk, having a day job you can bear but also being able to easily put it aside when it’s time to be in the studio. LL

About the artists:


Robert Hargrave was born in Oxnard, CA, raised in southern AZ, has been a Seattle resident for the past 20 years. He is in the practice of old fashioned drawing and painting. Improvisation is his strength and he enjoys employing "mixed" media whenever he can. Robert has been published in numerous artist survey books and magazines in addition to a monograph of his own work called Magic Beans.

Robert's paintings are meditations on the unpredictability of life. He states, "Despite all the information we are given, I believe much is unknown to us in the moment, with clarity only achieved upon later reflection." Robert's working process parallels this belief. There is never an overall plan or formula in his work, allowing the imagery to manifest itself, becoming an exercise in movement and a dedication to discovery. His paintings are about the excitement in each evolving moment in life, be it minute or grand, and savoring it.

Seattle artist Barbara Noonan loves being outdoors, walking the beaches or visiting the large expansive prairies of Eastern Washington. “It’s taken years for me to carefully study and then paint the light and shadows but they often felt overworked. Distillations is my latest series leaning towards the abstract. I’ve purposely paired down my strokes of soft pastel over a watercolor wash to provide only the essential information; creating a sense of place. When layering colors I’m conscious of nature’s atmospheric influence especially as the sun emerges or dwindles.” Her mark making is intentional and expressive. Thicker strokes offer weight while lighter strokes provide lightness and breath. Noonan is a Signature Member of the Pastel Society of the West Coast and the Northwest Pastel Society. She teaches pastel painting in her Seattle studio and is frequently asked to do painting demonstrations in local art groups. In 2013 she was the featured artist in The Pastel Journalnational publication. In 2014 she will be a juror for the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center Art Exhibition in Baker City, Oregon.Currently she is using her Human Resources background to teach workshops to artists on Chronicling their Accomplishments. See more about them here: http://morninnoonannight.com/workshop/8682/chronicling-your-accomplishments

Painter, painted constructions, performance and event artist Laurie LeClair currently lives and works in Seattle and is the director of Room 104 Gallery. As U.S. Foreign Service dependent, LeClaire traveled with family to Greece, France, Algeria, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, India and Canada. Attended French, British and American schools. She completed art school at the Corcoran in 1973 and remained in Washington D.C. until 1976. Her first exhibit in 1973 was at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. LeClaire exhibited regularly at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) and other galleries in Washington and New York. LeClaire was included in the Northwest Annual, curated by Laura Trippi in 1995, and in 1998 created an installation piece for the First Avenue window of the Seattle Art Museum Rental/Sales Gallery. She included in The End, a millennium exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum and in 2000 was invited to place a site-specific sculpture/installation work at the new sculpture park at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center (PAFAC). Was selected in 2002 by Seattle Arts Commission as a participant in its new Emerging Public Artist Roster, which association led to doing a full-scale artist's installation for an emerging public artists' exhibition at City Space. She has been represented in Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle.


Painter and social artist Kate Vrijmoet lives and works in Seattle, WA. She received her MFA from Syracuse University. Her paintings and installations focus on the human body and the human condition, and on issues of consciousness, boundaries, and access. Vrijmoet was one of 16 American artists participating in the 2012 5th Beijing International Biennial. Her sound installation, Mother May I…?  was awarded Best Installation in the Brooklyn Wide Open exhibit by Charlotta Kotik, Curator Emerita Brooklyn Museum of Art. And it was exhibited at Orange County Center on Contemporary Art–a show endorsed by Nicolas Bourriaud. Vrijmoet has exhibited in shows juried by curators of the Met (Anne Strauss) and the Guggenheim (Nat Trotman). She received 3rd Prize in 2010 Ecuador Biennial. Her work has been published in New American Paintings, The Seattle Times, Catapult Magazine and in 2010, CoCA Seattle published a 42-page catalog for her solo show, Kate Vrijmoet: Essential Gestures. Upcoming exhibitions include a two-person show scheduled at Linda Hodges Gallery in February 2014, and an exhibit on Destigmatizing Mental Illness in the City Hall Annex in Seattle. www.katevrijmoet.com

Lena Levin is a painter of poems; www.lenalevin.com. She is active on google+, she runs the +In Studio with Masters dedicated to studies from masters of painting, G+ with brushes page, an on-going digest of original paintings posted publicly with Terrill Welch, and First Friday Art Walk, a monthly virtual art show with Samantha Villenave all on G+.

Tags: Studio
Category: Art Business
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