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Open Studios Tour: When The Whole City Is The Arts District

Kim Ransdell in studio

"From time to time I hear this argument that Bloomington has too many artists," notes an incredulous Sarah Pearce, "as if there’s some golden ratio of regular people to artists!"

From time to time I hear this argument that Bloomington has too many artists as if there’s some golden ratio of regular people to artists!

A painter and part-time instructor, Pearce is one of the two main forces behind the inaugural Open Studios Tour, a self-guided tour of Bloomington-area studios and work spaces taking place June 2 and 3, 2012, from 10 am to 4 pm each day. Connecting the public to over 50 artists in 18 locations, the tour demonstrates exactly "how pervasive the artmaking is in town," explains Pearce.

A New Vision For The Visual Arts

"There’s so much happening with art in Bloomington," agrees co-organizer Marcy Neiditz, ceramicist, part-time instructor, and former gallery director, "but we were feeling that the visual arts were getting shortchanged. We needed something new and fresh."

But the logistics involved in finding a new, fresh way to promote the city’s visual arts were far from simple. Neiditz had been attending meetings of the Arts Alliance, the organization that grew up out of the ashes of the Bloomington Area Arts Council in 2010.

"And while the Arts Alliance was organizing themselves," Neiditz recalls, "we still weren't seeing things happen fast enough."

So Neiditz and a small group that grew out of the Alliance's Visual Arts Guild began brainstorming about ways to give more prominence to the city's visual arts. After considering mounting a biennial exhibition, the organizers were increasingly drawn to the idea of an open studios tour.

Neiditz and Pearce did their homework before committing to the tour. Working with the office of the Assistant Economic Director for the Arts, the artists researched other studio tours around the country and circulated a survey to gauge interest among local artists. They consulted and strategized with the organizers of the Fourth Street Festival, one of Bloomington's flagship arts and crafts events.

And slowly, the organizers managed to convince other local artists to buy inquite possibly the most impressive feat of all.

A Gradual Collective

"Artists don’t want to come to meetings," confesses organizer Elke Pessl, a fine arts photographer.  "They don’t even want to have a beer together," agrees Pearce.  "It’s weird."


By way of explanation, Pessl suggests that she was hesitant to get involved until it became clear that there was a event planned, at a professional level, with consideration given to organization and promotion. "Four months later," Pearce explains, "we have 50 artists who are quite invested, and really know how to communicate with each other, so what can we do with that?"

Sarah’s question is, in part, rhetorical—the 50-plus artists who’ve come together know that the first order of business is the tour itself. Over the tour weekend, visitors will be able to see artists at work everywhere from the Near-West Side to Park Ridge East, from Lake Lemon to Inverness Woods. An alternative space at Textillery Weavers and the Trained Eye Art Center on the northern end of the B-line trail will house large groupings of artists.

"There’s no rule that you have to go to all of them," Pearce reassures the potentially overwhelmed.  "Everyone is going to choose a few places on this map, and each visitor's experience will be different." Studios will offer interactive art happenings, demonstrations of carving, wood cut, and painting techniques, children's activities, and refreshments. In addition to seeing a great deal of artwork, visitors will have the chance to meet the artists making it, see it being made, and purchase artwork.

The Long View

The educational and promotional advantages of the Open Studios Tour are evident. Beyond the weekend of the tour, though, the organizers are optimistic that the group of participantsnow roughly grouped under the rubric V.A.G.U.E. (Bloomington Visual Artists Guild United Enterprises)will reap long-lasting benefits from their alliance.  Visual artists tend to be solitary creatures, Pessl explains, who prefer to burrow into their practice.  So the group provides a rare, and critical opportunity to share resources and solidarity as a collective.

Along with support from the Gallery Walk group and the Convention and Visitor's Bureau,  The Open Studios Tour has been endorsed through its partnership with BEAD (Bloomington Entertainment Arts District), and a grant from the City of Bloomington Arts Commission, which helped fund the printing of the tour map.  Clearly the city recognizes the valuetangible and intangibleof the Open Studios Tour.  The organizers concur that Bloomington is a perfect incubator for  working artists, in terms of the small city's abundance of  time and space.  But is there a latent hope among the organizers that such efforts as the Open Studios Tour might foster the art market and arts tourism to take Bloomington to the level of a Saugatuck or a Santa Fe?

"I think it’s sure as heck worth trying," ventures Pearce.  "Those places made a concerted effort to be like that.  It was a collective effort on the part of artists, gallerists, city planning people."

"A town like Bloomington naturally wants to have a higher profile," Pessl speculates.  "My hope is that it would develop in a way that it could foster an identity that is unique to this size of a city, and its location in the Midwest, and not try to be something that it isn't."

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