Artists welcome public to 20th anniversary of popular volunteer-run event
For the 20th year in a row, the artists of Somerville will open their doors to the public from Friday, May 4 to Sunday, May 6. Even as we write, living rooms are being converted into galleries, kitchens into showrooms, and studios everywhere are being cleaned and readied for the annual pilgrimage. For this spring weekend, Somerville will transform into one of the largest art markets in the country, with over 350 artists showing in 87 locations spread across the city’s 4.1 square miles. For visitors, the artists and art can be easily reached via four free trolleys circling counterclockwise through the city all weekend.
Somerville Open Studios, or SOS as we like to call it, is unique in a number of important ways: It is one of the largest events of its kind in the United States, by far the largest in the Boston area, yet it still relies entirely on the hard work of volunteers. Somerville boasts some of the biggest studio complexes in New England—like the labyrinthine Vernon Street, Joy Street, and Brickbottom—but the origins and arguably the heart of the event remains the artists who show out of their homes or small studio buildings.
SOS normally restricts membership to artists who live or have a studio in Somerville. This year, SOS celebrates its 20 years of operation by honoring its history and those artists who have lost their homes or studios to rising rents and gentrification. Past members have been invited back to participate and accommodated in sites all over the city.
The annual event began back in 1999 when Jonathan Derry and Laura Fayer, two Somerville artists, wanted to have a citywide open studio event for artists in small studios as well home studios. An inaugural planning committee was formed, a call was put out to artists throughout Somerville, and the event was planned for the first weekend in May 1999. This first event featured over 80 artists exhibiting at 25 different sites in Somerville. As SOS grew, studio buildings like Vernon Street asked if they could be in SOS. A meeting was called to talk about this. There was a concern that if large studios participated, it would draw the public away from the small and home studios. After much discussion, SOS welcomed the large studio buildings.
In 2002, the first Artist’s Choice exhibit was held at the Somerville Museum. This exhibit is now called the SOS First Look show, and this year it began on April 23 and continues until May 15, 2018, at the Somerville Museum. The show allows visitors to plan their tour and preview the artists.
Somerville Open Studios became a Massachusetts nonprofit organization in 2004 with two goals in mind. As we claim on our tax forms each year, the open studios serves the “purpose of broadening public awareness of the arts and providing exposure to unknown and emerging artists.”
Since Somerville Open Studios is still run and organized by volunteers, everything that goes into putting on the event is done with love and caring mixed with a lot of pride. Things like putting together the First Look Show, the Volunteer Show, getting sponsors, making the map book and map stands, and all the little things that go into SOS weekend are done by a big group of volunteers. Most of the volunteers are participating artists. The artists and volunteers are what make Somerville Open Studios happen.
For a small city, Somerville boasts a remarkable number of artists, pursuing an astounding diversity of artistic disciplines and media. SOS remains a healthy organization, but many are concerned that membership has been dropping since our peak of 425 artists in 2013.
We have all watched friends be forced out of their homes or studios by rent increases or condo conversions, and remain fearful that this trend will only increase. This is why we have welcomed back the displaced artists of Somerville for this 20th year celebration. Somerville has changed dramatically from the city of 1999, but its artists remain an inclusive and welcome community, eager to open its doors for visitors this weekend.
Come and see for yourself May 4, 6-9 pm, and May 5 and 6, 12-6 pm.
Find out more at somervilleopenstudios.org.
The authors are members of Somerville Open Studios board of directors.