Often creative artists are asked to donate their skills or their work for the sole compensation of exposure. While well intentioned, few of those situations can seem like real opportunities and many times, unfortunately, are more of a benefit for the person seeking the free work.
A studio tour, however, can also be an opportunity for exposure and networking, with the added benefit of being accomplished on your own terms. Whether open to the public, or private by appointment, you are in control of what happens, and all your energy is not given away.
If you are not used to people exploring your creative space, having an outline or checklist is often very helpful. While I have given a few open studio tours, each one offers new lessons and experiences to sharpen my future presentations.
My goal for any open studio tour is to be inviting and to cultivate curiosity and interest, which is the purpose of exposure. If talking about your art does not come easily to you, practice with a trusted friend, perhaps one who is an artist, and one who is not. Both perceptions are valuable and will give a full range of talking points.
Studio tours are not about selling your art. I mention where my work is available for purchase (including right here in my studio) only if I am asked about it. I always make sure to have business and rack cards available.
For private tours, I know they are already interested because they made the appointment and if selling is not your strength, (which is the case for me and many creative artists), a private tour can be less intimidating. Tours, in general, are about building honest relationships. This is about presenting your work and honoring your guests’ love for art. Every artist is unique and so is their studio, and therefore so is their overall tour experience. Always do what feels right for you.
So back to that mental checklist for preparation…
Experience has taught this kind of preparation is useful for easing most of my nervousness. Just recently, two gracious women came for an appointed tour. I was excited and thought a lot about how to make sure it would be an enjoyable afternoon. While it turned out well, and they had a nice time, I also learned a lot about improving plans for future open studio tours.
Make sure they have accurate directions to your studio and all your contact info
I live in an extremely rural community. My studio is hidden away almost 20 miles out of town, down a driveway that is completely overgrown in summer months. Google Maps and GPS don’t always find it. Yes, I’m serious. My guests made it with no problems because I advised them more carefully than they thought necessary. I also parked my car on the roadside, so they had something easily recognizable to help confirm they were at the correct driveway. When they arrived, they were grateful.
There is nothing worse than getting lost and losing an hour or two driving when you would rather be looking at art. I learned this the hard way during my first open studio tour. A lot of people got lost, and thankfully it became a joke instead of a point of contention. However, I never let that happen again.
Plan an itinerary for your day
Have an idea of the order of your activities. According to when they arrive, will you offer them a lunch? A drink? Alcohol? Be very careful offering alcohol and know the local laws about serving. (I am from NY and now live in VA. The laws are extremely different!) If it’s a larger group, will it be easier just to have snacks set up like a small reception? Where exactly are they meeting you on the property?
Some of these things may seem obvious, but if you are not sure or new to hosting these types of events, they are not. I made coffee, for instance, but I did not have any good quality tea, which one guest preferred. Inquiring beforehand about this kind of small detail, I could have been just that much more welcoming and thoughtful.
My itinerary was a welcome beverage in my home, small talk to see what they were interested in, and then visit the studio. I learned this kind of flow from attending a lot of art opening receptions, and I find that this works best for me.
How much time will your tour be?
Having an idea of a time limit helps navigate the experience and focus the conversation. I have found on average, between two and three hours is more than enough time and a realistic expectation of holding your audience’s attention.
When planning the open studio tour with your guests, this is essential information to confirm. Politely offering a set time that you are most comfortable with, even if it is just one hour, is a good way to start. Your studio might be a part of a bigger day for them, or they might expect to be with you all day. You will want a firm sense of this when arrangements are initially made.
Plan some questions to ask
Another way to make this a fun experience and less nerve-wracking on yourself is for you to get involved and ask questions too. I learned this as I realized how little I had in common with my European guests.
A favorite question that almost always leads to a great conversation (and one I wished I would have asked) is “what do you like to do for fun?” It’s a great way to find out how a particular person thinks and can also generate many other topics to talk about. This was a good lesson for me and next time I will have several questions in mind or written down to review beforehand.
Outline the order of how you’ll go through the studio
I have a one room studio divided by furniture. Here is where I really learned some new things to improve my next open studio tour.
I wish I would have explained each corner at the time I invited them to look around before I started showing them the art, because it would have naturally led to my process and then showing the work would have been more informed and possibly a better set up, for conversation.
I recommend having an order that is natural for you and that makes sense. It can really set the tone of the overall experience. While it is essential to be yourself and not be too rehearsed, presenting in a somewhat organized fashion helps with a good impression and a better understanding of your work.
Don’t be afraid to explain how you work
The creative process often fascinates people, but they may not know exactly how to ask about it. It is sometimes hard to accept that your guests are interested in your creative methods, but it’s true. Now is the time to share your passion. This honesty will engage them in a way that reminds you all over again why you are doing what you do.
Positive outlook and always asking if they have any questions are two good points I try to use consistently. (It is never a good idea to talk about your art in terms of saying something negative about another art form or artist.)
My work is remarkably narrative, and I was asked about the stories in my paintings, which created a lot of conversation as relative experiences were shared. I learned that my friend, a daughter of an artist, had memories of sitting for her father, when she was very young, as he sketched her. It was special because I was relating how I used to sketch my father when I was a kid. This information connected us and was part of what made their tour unique. This type of thing will happen a lot and it is a great benefit for you as well as your guests.
Explaining your creative process educates your guests and helps them appreciate the value of what you are doing. You will also learn a lot which can be very inspiring for future projects.
Go through your work with care
My work is stored in a way not easily accessed. If you are having a public open studio tour and there are many people, you could arrange some work beforehand for easier viewing without much rummaging. Personally, I always do all the moving about myself. I organize the pieces from older work to the newer and finally to work in progress. This leads very easily into where I’m currently exhibiting, and what other art events are happening locally.
Asking several times if there were any questions while showing my work, helps me to gauge their continued level of interest. That way when they are ready to leave, it is a natural cue to pick up.
At last with the tour completed, we entered the house to collect gear, and I offered up a second round of food and drinks, to which my guest responded, “It is very American to offer a beverage for the road.” It was a witty observation, and they had fun poking at me about it. As we laughed I could already see the beginnings of a friendship between these women and myself that had started simply by inviting them into my creative space.
As I mentioned previously, every tour teaches me how to improve for the next. Here are a few things I have learned along the way so perhaps you won’t have to make the same mistakes I did. I also mention some lessons learned while attending other art functions, so there are observations from both sides of an event to help you better prepare and increase the success of your own studio tour.
Don’t ignore or shy away from promotion
Even if you hate self-promotion just do the best you can–and then do one more thing that you may be hesitant to try. Social media, local newspapers (yes local community is super important especially if you have an older audience) radio if you can afford it, word of mouth, or mail eye-catching postcards.
If you are unsure, think about a target audience you would like to reach, and then focus your strategy accordingly. For a public open studio tour, a huge fear is a low turnout. However, low turnout simply means an intimate gathering rather than a huge party. Adapt your conversation. Plan another tour and ask your current guests to bring a plus one.
No matter who is there, be polite and make them feel appreciated for showing up
There is nothing worse than being in a group and feeling alone, so make sure none of your guests will feel this way. I have unfortunately experienced this at several art receptions and knew it was something I would be very aware of for my own studio tours. Having a close trusted friend to help “co-host” can assist with offering refreshments, making introductions, and having an inclusive conversation. Because these unfamiliar faces are really your most important guests. They represent one of your most important goals, which is to reach an expanded audience.
Don’t assume your guests have the same context as you
Explain. Explain. Explain. I once attended an artist talk where the artist was Mormon, and her work was based on this perspective. It was beautiful, intimate and intriguing, and her discussion focused on Mormon faith and its unique culture, but with no basic intro to the topic. I was completely lost. Even asking questions afterward did not help because I had no fundamental knowledge.
Don’t try to be what you are not
I am always afraid of stumbling over my words and not making any sense at all. Practice helps, but it still happens. When it does, I will be honest when I get nervous and say so. Once I do that, the nervous energy actually goes away because people tend to be understanding.
When you are honest, people will appreciate and accept your courage to be vulnerable in that way. They will remember this as part of understanding that intangible attraction to and importance of the arts.
If you are a guest, don’t make it about yourself
Finally, if you are an attending artist, don’t just go for the free food and wine and create a closed cliché that monopolizes peoples’ attention with self-serving conversation and cellphone images of your own work.
I have experienced this a lot as an attendee at many art-related events, and it drives me crazy. An artist attending a tour, or any other type of artist event should do so in solidarity. A welcoming, respectful, supportive arts community is vital for everyone.
If you make art, stories, or music, you have a place where you create it. No matter what your creative discipline is, think about showing your workspace off a little. Going through this process will not only build your voice and your potential audience, but it will boost your self-confidence as well. You will learn how to talk more easily about your work and how others perceive it.
Simply opening up your studio to others, you’ll be gaining valuable exposure for both yourself and your creative work, which may be exactly what you need to take your creative business to the next level.
Have you ever invited people into your creative space for an event or open studio tour? How did it go and what did you learn from the experience? What useful tips and strategies would you suggest to others? What would you avoid doing in the future? Please take a minute to share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comment section below!
As an oil painter, Suzanne V Paddock is an active member of a thriving arts community located in the rural yet gentle hills of Central Virginia. A dream come true is her second story studio with treehouse views and a small murder of crows for company. Her website. offers access to her work, lots of information and welcomes contact for studio tour appointments.