One weekend each year, Ellen Emerson Yaghjian invites perfect strangers into her studio to talk about her artwork, using copper to create sculptures and garden fountains.
Then, her visitors flip through an Open Studios map to pick their next stop on the tour.
“People are jazzed about coming and going,” Yaghjian said, “hopping in the car and going to the next place.”
The Midlands’ fourth annual Open Studios weekend, April 5-6, allows residents to meet neighbors who make art, explore the creative process with them and cultivate their own tastes.
The event is free, with participants simply picking which studios they want to visit. There are more options than anyone could see in just one weekend. This year, 46 visual artists in Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties will throw open their doors.
Events like Open Studios are one sign that Columbia is coming into its own as a city that supports contemporary art and local artists, said Lynn Robertson, who sits on the board of the sponsoring organization, 701 Center for Contemporary Art.
“We really have turned the corner,” said Robertson, former director of the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum. “We’re not to the maturity phase yet, but there’s just so much happening. It’s very exciting.”
For Open Studios artists, the event offers an opportunity reach new audiences. Many do not show their work in galleries, so inviting people to visit their workplaces generates name recognition and potential sales.
For event-goers like Jillian Owens, it’s an adventure – an opportunity to see the normally private studios of working artists. She expects to choose 10 artists to visit.
“For a lot of people, they’re not necessarily familiar with how an artist lives and works, so it’s a great way to have access,” said Owens, 32, who works at the United Way of the Midlands.
“If you’re nosy, it’s pretty terrific.”
Organizers expect the event to keep growing – and hope to interest artists in the smaller communities surrounding Columbia, 701 CCA board chairman Wim Roefs said.
The group cites a total of 20,000 visits in the first three years of the event, producing more than $75,000 in art sales.
Open Studios are held all over the country, with Greenville hosting the largest and most established tour in South Carolina. Its event began in 2002 and is always held the first full weekend of November.
Alan Ethridge, executive director of Greenville’s Metropolitan Arts Council, said the weekend has become the premiere sales and marketing event for artists working within a 15-mile radius of downtown. Last year, 124 artists joined in.
The event draws residents as well as visitors within a day’s drive, Ethridge said, and some people come every year.
Columbia’s Open Studios is one of the biggest art-driven events in the Midlands, letting people explore all types of visual art by artists of varying experience. It is not a juried event; anyone with a dedicated studio space is eligible.
“That’s really important, because it gives people a full view of just about everything going on,” Robertson said.
Lee Snelgrove, director of the nonprofit One Columbia for Arts & History, said the studio tour is helping to make art relevant to more people.
“You start thinking that, ‘Art is part of my daily life because that is a neighbor of mine; I’ve met that person.’”