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Arts Beat: With open studios tour canceled, Monterey County artists lose sales, connection

Edward M. Corpus
A painting by Edward M. Corpus.

Monterey County artists have opened up their workspaces as part of the annual Artists Open Studio Tour over the past three decades. This year, though, those doors will remain closed because of the pandemic. Arts Habitat, which took over as organizer in 2016, has canceled the tour until next summer.

Over two weekends every year, visitors get a chance to peek behind the veil of nearly 100 artists. With a map in hand, they can go door to door throughout Monterey County to meet the artists who call the area home, see them at work, and also to buy art that speaks to them.

But it became clear in March that this year’s tour was not going to go as planned. Initially, Arts Habitat pushed the dates to October, but then decided even then it would be too risky to proceed. Shirmaine Jones, an administrator with Arts Habitat, says without studio tours artists are losing a way to connect to their audience.

“What's special for a tour taker like me is I get to see the process, I get to see the abundance of art that's being produced in my community,” Jones said. “I get a connection to that person whose art I might buy and it has more value to me because of that.”

Visual artist Edward Corpus is one participant who won’t get the chance to present his work to the public this year. He’s been a part of the studio tours since 2016, and it’s also where he met his wife, the artist Karen Warwick. He admits he prefers his own company, so the tours provide a good way for him to get his work out to the public.

“I call myself a cultural subversive artist,” Corpus said. “I've spoken with other people who are getting cabin fever about this time. I think my wife and I are our outliers, in that we're both artists and we're both introverts and recluses pretty much, so social distancing is not new to us. I've had to pivot more towards online sales, which I have not done that much in the past.”

For Corpus, the tours were an essential vehicle for selling his work. He said most of his sales have been through studio tours and group gallery exhibitions. But more than anything, he misses the visceral connection between creators and the public.

“People want to know about how creativity works, how artists make the magic happen,” Corpus said. “Hopefully, we'll be able to do what a lot of the museums are attempting to do now and to do online videos, studio tours, and maybe arts habitat will do this, and hopefully we can get over this crisis relatively soon.”

Andrea McCann is another Monterey County artist shifting gears during the pandemic. She lives and works in a rural unincorporated area, so the tour last year was an opportunity for people to come to an area off the beaten path—about 40 people paid her a visit.

McCann also participates in the San Benito County Open Studios Tour, which is going digital this fall. In September, that county’s virtual tour will include a livestream of artists working in their studios and showing their process. The organization has also been running online tutorials for artists, geared towards reaching the public during the pandemic.

“A lot of artists are having to pick up the technology aspect of marketing their own work, everything from you know, trying to produce videos to streaming live to getting websites up, whether it's on Etsy or their own website presence,” McCann said. “So in some ways, it's good because it's sort of forcing us all to get ourselves familiar with these platforms, but also it's a big learning curve for some of the artists that may have not been on the computer as much as some of the rest of us.”

For Arts Habitat, the sudden shutdown was a shock to its finances. The open studios tour was just two months away when shelter in place began, which meant that much of the money they had raised to put on the program was already spent.

“And so then, now we have to raise money again,” Jones said. “It's a year of staff time to do the work that develops the tour. So the pressure is going out there again, to write the grants to get the sponsorships at a time when several of those funders have said they're no longer giving the kind of funding to organizations like ours because it's not COVID related emergency monies.”

The nonprofit did receive Small Business Administration loans, which Jones said guarantees that next year’s tour will indeed take place. But if arts funding doesn’t rebound after that, the long term future of the program may be in doubt.

Arts Habitat is now taking registrations for the May 2021 artists open studio tour, and staff think they can put on a program that is safe for all involved.

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