Step in and look around: A talk with ArtSpan’s Therese Martin

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In the Visual Art section of this week’s Fall Arts Preview, San Francisco Open Studios gets a shout out. I recently talked with Therese Martin, Executive Director of ArtSpan, about Open Studios, and about ArtSpan’s role in helping Bay Area artists. We also discussed art by 'hood, and people who visit 75 artist studios in one weekend.

Guardian: How do you feel Open Studios is different from many art events in the Bay Area? I’d guess that while it’s larger, it’s can sometimes be more direct in terms of a chance to meet with artists.
Therese Martin: It’s definitely different because of the number of artists involved in so many different neighborhoods. It’s something you can participate in and not move beyond the 2 or 3 neighborhoods you normally go to.
The personal connection is unique. You really have the opportunity to shake the hand of a creative person. Even if you’re in a studio that’s not the living pace of an artist, it’s still a very personal space.

G: I’d guess that through Open Studios you have a keener sense than most people about the characteristics of art and artists in different neighborhoods.
TM: Visiting the Richmond and the Sunset is part of this experience that I have of going to brunch at a beach chalet and working my way back to the center of thecity. For me it’s a slower-paced endeavor than going to the multiple-artist group sites.
Going through a place such as Hayes Valley reminds me of a time when you used to go calling on people; it feels like that. I’ll start talking to the artist about where they get supplies and where they go to eat. In Hayes Valley, many of the artists are showing out of their homes, but they’re very well organized in terms of knowing who [among other neighborhood artists] is where. And I swear, they coordinate on the food. It’s not like you go to three places that have red wine and M&Ms. I’ve come to realize that the artists will gather weekly at Place Pigalle – there’s camaraderie in that neighborhood.
The Mission is interesting because there are so many different group site situations; there are a lot of smaller studios with emerging artists.

G: What types of advocacy work has ArtSpan been doing?
TM: There’s a survey that is taking place right now in regards to [Fabian] Nunez’s health care bill that’s going to the House. Artists of different disciplines have been sharing personal stories or filling in the survey and really qualifying whether they have insurance or access to health care, and if so, if they have it through a partner.
ArtSpan was heavily involved when artists were beginning to lose studio space during the dot com boom. Now, I see us playing more of a role in showing artists how to legitimize their business. We’ve always done workshops, but few artists really take advantage of the wealth of knowledge in this office. Sometimes people will call and ask if there is someone who specializes in doing taxes for studio artists. Artists often ask questions about incorporation or grants.
One area where I have personal strength is in helping artists understand how to finance their business. A lot of artists tend to try to finance their efforts entirely through equity. You can qualify for a loan if you’ve gathered data together – I know that can be very difficult for some artists (laughs).
Helping an artist to develop business sense serves them whether or not they’re in Open Studios for the long run as a constant participant. A lot of the work involves pointing artists to other nonprofit organizations. The SBA, the Small Business Administration does offer classes in business planning, and for a while they even had a person devoted to helping visual artists. I don’t think that resource was tapped into nearly as much as it could have been.

G: This year Open Studios is having a fifth weekend at the beginning of November. Can you tell me about that?
TM: It’s good for the artists, because people are starting to think about gifts for the holidays at that time. Also, we don’t want to compete with every festival going on in San Francisco, and there were three of them happening in the first week of November.

G: Are there aspects of Open Studios that people don’t know about, or that you wish people were more aware of?
TM: This is the oldest Open Studios program of this scale organized at this level in the country. It’s an international reference point. I really think it could only have happened in San Francisco.
Another thing is that this is a heavily subsidized program. People talk about the artists paying to be in it, but they’re paying anywhere between one-fifth or one-third the cost of what it takes to mount the Open Studios program.
My hope is that more artists become actively involved so that when opportunities come along, their names are in our [ArtSpan’s] minds. Garry Marshall was interested in one artist’s work to use in The Princess Diaries, and we really had to call her and say, “This is all checked out – you really need to call him back!” It’s not that I want to function as the Better Business Bureau, but it’s one way in which our involvement spans beyond October to the rest of the year.
The biggest thing that people should know about participating in Open Studios is that they shouldn’t be overwhelmed. There are people who compete – I know people who say, “Alright, whoever gets to 75 studios first gets free drinks.” That can be fun, but it’s not necessarily the best way to begin.
I wouldn’t try to schedule 30 artist visits in a day. Last year I was in graduate school. While walking from a coffee shop to a class I had about 20 minutes; I used it to pop into a studio and it absolutely made my day.
You can do Open Studios for an entire Saturday, or for an entire weekend. But I’d say if you bump into an open studio, it takes no time to step in and look around.

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