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A History of Open Studios

by Brenda Neimand

Included in a commemorative book created in 2015 for the Tour’s 20th anniversary.


Open Studios was an idea whose time had come: It was the mid-90s and Boulder had a large community of artists but precious few art galleries and a nascent cultural scene. Persuading the artists to open their studios for a couple weekends in the fall would facilitate a connection with the public. Artists would gain welcome exposure for their work, the studio tourists would meet the artists in a friendly and non-intimidating environment, and everyone would benefit from the experience. In the process, some art might change hands. In hindsight, it seems a no-brainer, but it took a zealous persuader and organizer to get it off the ground. Gary Zeff, then recently retired from a marketing career with Eastman Kodak and an enthusiastic woodworker, used as model the successful Santa Cruz, California, Open Studios. He organized Boulder’s Open Studios Fall Artists Tour in 1994 and launched it the next year with 84 artists. From the beginning, the nonprofit has relied for its success on an army of volunteers and a dedicated board of directors; nonetheless, Gary’s own art-making had to take a back seat as he focused his energies on nurturing the operation for its first 14 years. 


Open Studios quickly became one of the city’s most beloved events. When the familiar yellow signs bloom in yards all over town during the first two weekends of October, Boulderites are ready and waiting. The kick-off reception, traditionally held at Boulder Public Library, is thronged with artists and tour participants, all in high spirits. The number of studios on the tour averages 125, with new artists added to the juried group each year. Each artist has one piece in the Library, which displays them all for a period of time preceding the event. Traditionally a map has been sold so tourists know where to find each studio. Everyone sets off in a buzz of excitement and anticipation: parents with kids in tow (or the other way around), lone participants racing to check off a record number of studios, clots of friends  following a mutually plotted route, bikers combining exercise with an interest in art, art lovers and collectors as well as the uninitiated who are out to learn about how art is made. The tour participants are driven by curiosity, the hunt for exciting new talent, the chance to revisit favorite artists, or just the sheer delight that an afternoon of looking at art can bring. Thousands of people repeat this ritual year after year just because it makes them happy; it has become as symbolic of autumn pleasures as football games and golden aspens. 


Although Open Studios enjoys enormous popularity with the public, the artists are the key to its success. Making art is what artists do; showing and selling their art doesn’t necessarily come easily. But they are also typically passionate about their work, and eager to share why and how they create it. Agreeing to open their studios for two weekends each fall turned out to be a win-win proposition. An artist’s work may be seen by hundreds of people, and the touring visitors have an art experience that is up close and personal. If a purchase is made, it’s hard to know which side is more thrilled. 


After the tragedy of 9/11, Open Studios responded in a fitting manner. At the Fall Art Fest on the Pearl Street Mall on September 22, Open Studios manned a booth supplied with materials for individuals to make custom note cards expressing their sentiments about the tragedy. The cards were hand-delivered by a board member to first responders at the main headquarters at the World Trade Center site. That year Open Studios considered canceling the fall tour, in deference to the grim mood: our country was grieving and about to go to war. But the show went on, and studio tour-goers were eager and grateful for an escape from trauma and bleakness into a realm of color and beauty. It was observed that serene watercolors were especially popular.


A more lighthearted special event, and the one most fondly remembered, was the enormous paint-by-numbers spoof that was unfurled on the wall of a downtown office building in the fall of 2004, to mark the tenth anniversary of the organization’s founding. The fundraising project began in July with a (top secret) 19 x 25 inch pastel by Open Studios artist George Good, which was sent to

a company that specialized in turning artwork into a paint-by-number painting. The work was divided into 25 pieces, each 5 x 6 feet, which were printed on vinyl sheets by Circle Graphics, a Longmont billboard printer. The panels, along with jars of the specific colors of house paint required for each, were distributed to local companies who had paid $300 per panel. Their employees, clients,

customers, family and friends (an estimated 800 total) diligently filled in the numbered spaces, having no idea what the finished image would turn out to be. When all the panels were completed, they were returned to Circle Graphics to be reassembled. The result was a huge vinyl “canvas”— at the time, the largest paint-by-number in the United States, according to Guinness World Records! On September 18 a Boulder climbing club attached the work to the north wall of what was then the Colorado Building (14th Street and Walnut), and the image (gasp!) was revealed—a gloriously giant gorilla swinging from the Flatirons!


Gary recalls another attention-grabbing fund-raiser that involved fire hydrants (“That was SO much fun!” he recalled). Dog owners were recruited to sponsor a Pearl Street fire hydrant. Each hydrant was then assigned to an Open Studios artist, who transformed it into a work of art. People voted for their favorite, and the winning artist, the sponsor, and the dog were photographed together in front of a firetruck. Boulderites were so enamored of their artsy fire hydrants that when it came time to fulfill the promise to the city to repaint them, the artists restoring the standard hydrant green took a lot of flack from citizens who strongly preferred the more creative paint jobs.


The idea of artists painting cars was an example of how Gary tried to ensure that “a sponsor would not only give us money but they would get some promotion out of it, not just an ad.” He persuaded Pollard Autos at the intersection of Pearl and 30th streets to provide a car that artists would cover in a wild design to promote Open Studios. One artist provided the design, which was realized with the help of numerous other painters. The car was then parked right at the corner, where many motorists would see it each day. Sometimes the car was driven around town to promote the event, and the dealership. This idea was repeated a second year, when the artists painted on the white paper used to cover new cars in shipment, so it was easily removed.


Gary was a tireless advocate for Open Studios, a bulldog with a good idea, an indomitable force when it came to squeezing money or support from donors. He was also a terrific judge of character and built a board of directors who shared his vision and brought diverse and invaluable talents. First in was Howard Bernstein, a Boulder lawyer who was recommended to Gary by another lawyer, and who not only understood the mission but helped take it from idea to reality. Howard “got” the idea that Open Studios would benefit the artists but that it was also about education: “We would raise the public consciousness about art, there’d be greater art appreciation, artists would be energized by that, and it would help put Boulder on the arts map.” It was Howard who made that argument to the IRS when he successfully filed for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for Open Studios. He has served continuously as the board’s secretary and embodies its institutional memory; he is the reliably level-headed member, ever rational, grounded, and loyal. Explaining his enthusiastic dedication to Open Studios, he exclaims, “I just love it!”


Photographer Chris Brown, another volunteer of note, has participated in countless Open Studios and also served on the board. It was he who in 2005 convinced 19 Open Studios artists to donate art to the nonprofit Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. Art on its walls would make the recently opened new shelter feel more like home, and the artists (repeatedly asked, repeatedly generous) yet again donated their works.


Over the years, a number of events were designed exclusively to meet the needs and interests of Open Studios artists. These have included free winter workshops or guest speakers on such topics as promotion and marketing; how to photograph artwork; selling artwork; and instruction in various art media. And there were parties such as the annual Open Studios post-event party with a feedback session for the artists. Such activities that focused on the artists helped build camaraderie among them as they learned the basics of the business of art.


Some Open Studios initiatives have been ongoing in nature. Art education, both formal and informal, has always been part of the Open Studios mission. From the beginning, artists on the fall tour were strongly encouraged to provide something educational—a demonstration, a project for kids and/or adults, an opportunity to use a woodworking tool or a loom, whatever might engage or involve the curious visitor. Many people who tour the studios want seriously to understand the process the artist uses to achieve his creations, and the studio atmosphere is right for asking questions without feeling embarrassed or intimidated.


A more formal commitment to education was the creation of Education Links (Ed Links), a program that sent Open Studios artists into the schools to lend assistance in the classrooms to enhance art education and inspire the students. This program began in 2000, in response to budget restraints and other pressures that resulted in public schools’ reducing the time and staff for teaching art and music. Art teachers who apply for the program receive a list of the participating artists; the teacher then contacts an artist directly to schedule times for classroom presentations. Each artist provides up to five classroom hours for instruction, projects, demonstrations, etc., and may present the same or another bloc at different schools and classrooms during the year. The art teachers are excited to work with professional artists, and the kids are thrilled by the exposure to new ways to make art.


Open Studios moved into early education in 2008 when it bought Clementine Studio, an art school for kids. It was located in the Steelyards on 30th Street and offered drop-in classes, summer camps, and after-school and school break programs. Occasionally adult classes were held in the same location. Soon after the acquisition, Open Studios changed its name to OpenArts to reflect the broader scope of its undertakings, with the Open Studios fall tour remaining the mainstay of the organization. Under the amazing director and teacher Lisa Holub, Clementine Studio gained an enthusiastic following and rave reviews for its staff, program, and welcoming nature, but it struggled to be financially stable. It moved to a location at 2590 Valmont and then, a few years later, to space in the Pine Street Church at 13th Street in downtown Boulder.


This summer, Clementine Studio began a transition from its Pine Street home to a mobile platform that will allow it to take art education to children of all socioeconomic strata, including those who don’t otherwise have such opportunities. The “artmobile” concept will allow Clementine also to take its unique process-oriented art education to facilities that serve the disabled and the elderly. Reaching a broader constituency through this targeted delivery system could contribute to closing the achievement gap, lowering barriers for the disabled, nurturing the elderly and increasing the number of individuals who appreciate the critical value of art in life. Open Studios is very excited about this new direction and hopes the Boulder County community will be as well.


After Gary retired in 2008, his hired successor proved in short order to be a poor fit, and board member Kathleen Sears valiantly stepped forward and volunteered to serve until a permanent executive director was found. Jane Saltzman took the reins early in 2009, so her tenure as executive director (unluckily) coincided with the Great Recession. Finding financial equilibrium became even more challenging, but she brought new energy and tried fresh tactics. By this time, OpenArts had moved its offices to Rembrandt Yard on Spruce Street, with an agreement to curate art for the galleries on both floors. This provided a beautiful year-round space for showing the art of Open Studios artists, with exposure to the general public. Jane and subsequent executive directors have hung a new show several times a year, opening each with a public reception.


The annual benefit parties continued under Jane’s successor, Bill Capsalis, a former chair of the Open Studios board. He took over as executive director in the summer of 2012. Those fundraisers, such as the amazing Beatnik-themed bash of 2013, were all swell parties, with terrific buzz and rave reviews (if you include enough artists, the party is bound to be a success!), but none was able to produce a bountiful addition to the bottom line.


The 2014 Open Studios was notable for two firsts, both occasioned by the death of longtime Open Studios artist Scott Reuman, who had died in 2012. A free screening of Scott Reuman and the Wave of Improbability, a documentary tribute to the artist, took place in the Boulder Public Library auditorium. Following the film, the inaugural Scott Reuman Award for Artistic Excellence was awarded to Boulder sculptor Jerry Wingren. The $4,000 award recognizes an artist who has demonstrated an absolute mastery of his/her craft. A foundation established in Reuman’s memory has guaranteed the continuance of the annual award for ten years.


As Open Studios looks back over all it has accomplished in two decades, it is enormously grateful for all the time, energy, and leadership donated over the years by its board members and especially by its board chairs: Vaughn Hoxie (1995-99); Bill Capsalis (2000-02); Ted Jobe (2003-04); Dwight Larimer (2005-08); Richard Reeves (2009); Kathleen Sears (2010-2013); and Howard Bernstein, interim (2014). They have all proudly and enthusiastically labored for the advancement of art in Boulder. It hasn’t always been easy, but there have been some really great times along the way!


On the threshold of its third decade, the organization has been revisiting its vision, goals, and strategies. Stephen DeNorscia stepped up as executive director this spring, and Matt Cohn, an artist and retired lawyer who has served on the board for a number of years, is the current board chair. The arts environment has significantly changed since Gary founded the organization, and in many ways, the success of his Open Studios tours is responsible. The citizens have indeed become more aware of art and the importance of encouraging it in our community and in our lives; they have come to understand that art is critical to our well-being, and that making it or viewing it offers a unique kind of pleasure. A goodly number of the early Open Studios participants have become successful artists, making a living with their art, and many of them have inspired younger or newer artists through their support, teaching, and encouragement. The result is a robust and ever-renewing community of artists, which again was one of the founding goals of Open Studios. Unsurprisingly, the studio tour concept has been copied in several neighboring towns. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a source of competition.


As Boulder has developed into an artists’ haven, inevitably the city has become saturated with art-focused nonprofits that serve artists and art appreciators. In fact, the cultural health of the city is strong: Boulder is today home to more than 130 registered nonprofit cultural organizations, and creative professionals living and working in Boulder make up nearly nine percent of the population. However, funding for the arts has not grown nearly as fast as the number of funding-seekers. The future of the arts in Boulder in general, and of Open Studios in particular, depends somewhat on what kind of support the city offers—for example whether it decides to provide low-cost studio spaces for artists. Otherwise, artists may abandon the city for more affordable space elsewhere. Meanwhile, Open Studios will increasingly embrace the option of operating on a virtual basis. This year, for example, no whopper-sized maps will be sold. Instead, all the information they contained—photos of each artist’s work, studio addresses, an index of artists by media, and a map of studio locations—is found (free) online and on an app that also provides a selection of studio tours by bike. Planning for the future is always a challenge, but Open Studios has a huge advantage in its constituency of artists: they are bright, optimistic, enthusiastic, and best of all, creative. It’s their nature to think outside the box, to color outside the lines. We don’t know exactly what the future will look like, but it will be beautiful—and the road trip will be an exciting and fun adventure. We’re making our wishes and blowing out all the candles: Happy 20th Birthday, Open Studios! 

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