Making the Most of EAST
Ten tips to help you keep your head in the crush of the East Austin Studio Tour
Though it's revealed year after year during the East Austin Studio Tour, the number of artists in this town is staggering. While the tour remains uniquely all-inclusive (any artist who can find a space in East Austin is welcome to participate, and most do), EAST, run by nonprofit Big Medium, has lately gone the way of internationally recognized commercial contemporary arts festivals like Art Basel or Frieze in at least one sense: You won't be able to see all of it – it's just too big.
If you've never been to EAST before, or if you have but feel like you didn't get as much out of it as you could have, or even if you'd just like to change things up this time around, here are 10 suggestions to make the most of your 2015 EAST experience, including how best to prioritize visits, navigate larger studio spaces, and map your tour.
The East Austin Studio Tour runs through Nov. 22, Sat. & Sun., 11am-6pm, at venues across East Austin. For more information, visit east.bigmedium.org.
Consider the catalog your arts bible
And like any good Christian, don't forget how fun it is to sin. The EAST catalog – available at all Austin Public Library branches on a first-come, first-served basis – gives brief artist statements and an image for every artist, gallery, and event willing to pay a fee. It's a great way to zero in on exactly where you want to spend your time, but if you see something that catches your eye off the beaten path (even something – gasp – not in the catalog), be sure to check it out.
Go home – that is, the artist's home
Some of the stops on the tour, you'll notice, are not galleries at all but rather individuals' homes. These can be house studios or outdoor spaces or even living rooms converted into art showcases during EAST. These intimate spaces are worth taking advantage of. They provide not only a low-key approach to EAST, but also a more secluded setting in which you'll be able to take your time with the art rather than being pressed to move along quickly and be able to interact more easily with the artists.
Minimize vehicle use
You thought Austin traffic was bad normally? Well, take that mass of cars and pack it all into the Eastside where the infrastructure is even less well-equipped to handle the load. That's traffic during EAST, and it's a nightmare. For everyone's sake, leave the car at home – or at least carpool. The city's eastern neighborhoods are increasingly bike- and public transport-friendly, and you'll have the added benefit of not spending half your day looking for a spot to park. Either way, find a central location that allows you to walk between galleries/spaces. Which brings us to ...
Make time for large studio spaces
Some of EAST's key players such as Splinter Group, Big Medium at Canopy, Museum of Human Achievement, Pump Project, and Big Medium at Bolm Studios are all within walking distance of one another (well, a long walk in some cases). These studio hubs contain a considerable majority of EAST artists and a broad range of kinds of art. You'll be able to visit the studios of printmakers, jewelers, painters, sculptors, photographers, and everything in between. If you plan to make only a few stops on EAST, visit one of these studio spaces.
Indulge your other senses (i.e., eat and drink)
The Eastside is a culinary hotbed right now. Whether your thing is a coffeehouse, microbrewery, or restaurant, you can find it in and on the edges of the studio tour. Drop in to Sa-Tén for the Ohayo (breve with brown sugar), visit Tex-Mex Joe's on Springdale to feast on the breakfast tacos that fuel Canopy on a daily basis, or take a load off at the Hops & Grain tasting room next to MASS Gallery. If something a bit more high-class is your thing, get your reservations for an upscale dinner at Launderette, Mettle, or Justine's to close out your day of art viewing. That said ...
Be prepared for crowds
EAST gets crowded – like SXSW crowded. So prepare yourself for a swarm. Parking will be limited, if not impossible, at some of the larger studio spaces. With thousands of people moving through studios built for one plus an easel, things can get tight. But remember, there's plenty to see. If a space is too crowded, move on. If you just have to see a particular artist or space, consider showing up early, before the rush. And take precautions against EAST burnout by dressing for comfort, carrying a water bottle, keeping snacks handy, and retreating to quieter stops if you feel overwhelmed.
Make your budget beforehand
We could write a whole article on this topic alone (and did last week: "An EAST Buyer's Guide," Nov. 13). For now, know that EAST is a great opportunity to both purchase a unique piece of art and support your local creative community. If you think you may be interested in collecting this year, plan appropriately. Create a budget and be sure to speak with the artist about the details of any work you are seriously considering buying.
Attend arts events/happenings
Big Medium also champions several arts events during EAST, like the notable Hops for HOPE or little e.a.s.t at Blackshear Elementary. These sponsored events present hands-on opportunities for engaging more directly with artists outside of studio visits and exhibitions. Schedule at least one or two EAST events into your tour itinerary, and stay tuned to Big Medium on social media (namely Facebook and Twitter) as they often provide real-time updates for events that pop up throughout the tour.
Still overwhelmed? Try a guided tour
The best and worst thing about EAST is that there are virtually no gatekeepers. The tours were founded on the notion of bypassing the standard gallery and museum hierarchies to allow any artist who wanted to show work the opportunity to do just that. The drawback is a great dearth in curation and a wide range of quality. In recent years, however, outside curators and consultants have begun to fill that vacuum by offering tours of hand-selected studios and galleries. We recommend Troy Campa of Camiba Art Gallery, and Alicia Emr Art Advisory for meta-tours with a welcome degree of quality control.
Give back through donations/purchases
This may be the most important takeaway from our EAST tips. Local artists and galleries have devoted countless hours to the planning, creation, and execution of their EAST showcases. The tour is one of the few annual opportunities the artists have to make sales within Austin, and it's also the only time that so much of the community will be activated to tour studio spaces. If you enjoy participating in EAST, support the artists by purchasing their work or donating to Big Medium to help the tour continue with its mission. Even a small financial contribution helps these artists and institutions continue to provide exceptional programming.
While EAST is known as a celebration of the visual arts community of Austin, it more largely encompasses the city's creative pulse. EAST brings creative forces from all walks of life together for these two weekends in November. Come in with an open mind, and you'll leave feeling more attached to the artists who help keep Austin great, while also keeping it weird.