Taming the East Austin Studio Tour
With EAST's huge growth, artists work to keep the focus on their art and creative process
Longtime participants in the East Austin Studio Tour have rosy memories of a time when visitors would languidly bike or walk from backyard to backyard. "The first five or eight years of EAST, people would get on their bike, and they would go on this quest – really a pilgrimage. It was awesome!" Jennifer Chenoweth recalls, sitting at the kitchen table in her house, which accommodates, in addition to a friendly bevy of children and dogs, EAST destination Fisterra Studio. With quick growth, though, came an overwhelming change of pace for visitors and artists. "Around 2010, we had way too many people here. It was shoulder-to-shoulder strangers shuffling sideways and not talking." Chenoweth grimaces. "Right after that, Canopy got built. It kept growing by numbers, so the audience spread out a little, and it was like, whew, back to good conversations. But a lot of artists who didn't have a bunch of guest artists just didn't get much traffic."
These growing pains have been felt by other artists, some of whom, as Chenoweth says, counterintuitively saw their foot traffic decline even as the event exploded. Amanda McInerney, a founder and member of Artists Screen Printing Co-op (ASPCO), showed me around their workspace, where she lamented that more people don't veer slightly off the well-worn paths of EAST to take in their work and process. She attributes a lot of the dwindling of traffic to luck with location, saying, "It's like we just missed the curve."
Abstract painter Andrew Long remembers EAST's beginnings as a natural extension of a community of artists who saw one another frequently around the neighborhood, at coffee shops in the morning and in between working in their studios. Chenoweth was also part of this community of artists who embarked on the project with the idea of showcasing artists where they worked. She remembers before EAST: "It's not that there weren't good artists who lived here; they just didn't show here. People were like, let's make an art scene. We know the artists, we know their work is amazing, so let's make this happen."
And they did make it happen. With the growth of Austin as a whole, the event has expanded rapidly alongside development of the Eastside and the creation of new art centers, including Canopy, whose anchor tenant Big Medium produces EAST. This growth has changed EAST completely, providing stretches of one-stop shops where visitors have the opportunity to, as several artists said, get the most "bang for your buck" on a tour that, with nearly 500 participating artists this year, is impossible to take in in its entirety, even across two weekends.
Long says, "The growth is good because it gets more people in, obviously. People with a few hours or maybe a family can go to the big spaces and see a lot of art." And what of the artists outside of these larger, aggregate display locations? They depend on a more inquisitive set of visitors. "There are people, who, maybe, like abstract paintings, and flipping through [the catalog], well, there's maybe six or eight abstract painters and so they go to all of those," Long says of the people who stop by his lofty solo studio.
In some ways, this arrangement mitigates the crowd so that there aren't swarms of people shoved in backyards or houses that can't accommodate them. It also means that the people trekking out to home studios and workspace locations have a vested interest in doing so. Several artists noted that while their foot traffic may not match the event's growth, they've sold more art. Figure painter and EAST repeater Jennifer Balkan recalls showing in her backyard around 2009: "It was the first time I had done it alone, as well as off the beaten path, and that year was shocking, sadly quiet. I was so used to this party scene. But what I did find is my sales actually ended up being better. And people would make the effort, people who really wanted to see my stuff would come to me. It was lonely at first, and I couldn't leave, it was just me. But I made some sales, and I was able to have some good conversations with people. It was no longer a mob scene."
Those intimate talks with viewers matter to artists. Jacob Villanueva, an EAST veteran showing at Helm Boots this year, says, "It's important to see work in person. I could put all my photos on a website, but when it comes to photography or any artwork I do, I prefer you come and look at it and we can talk and have a dialogue about it, because I'm making it for people to experience."
Of course, the ongoing overhaul of East Austin is impossible for those who live and work there to ignore. Eastside artists have found studios harder to afford and the communities around them increasingly unrecognizable. Chenoweth speaks somberly about this possibly being her last year in EAST. "My whole neighborhood has been scraped. Inside my house, I still feel like I'm home, and as soon as I walk out the door, I don't know where I am anymore." The gentrification is stickily both a result of and a driving force for more spaces like Canopy, where artists can pool resources and share display space as costs of living across the Eastside rise.
ICOSA Collective member Alyssa Wendt references this as she recalls her history with the tour: "I've done EAST four times in four different studios because I keep losing my studio to developers." She loves the event, though, saying, "I think that's a sort of privilege itself, to be able to see the behind-the-scenes and not just the way something is presented in a professional gallery. It makes people understand the artistic process but also the struggle of maintaining a studio and a practice while still having to make a living. It gives people a lot more insight into the whole artists' community."
McInerney at ASPCO agrees: "We're going to keep the doors open, because we want people to see us working in here. To me, that's what EAST is: showcasing the process and not just the work, but both."