For some brave |entrepreneurs, home-working doesn’t just amount to a desk in the spare room or a laptop on the kitchen table. A handful of canny artists have kick-started a booming industry by opening up their private homes to sell original art and designer homewares to up to 200 people a day. The open house or home-gallery |phenomenon reaches across the country from Pittenweem in Fife, home to an annual Arts Festival since 1982, to Brighton, which this year celebrates its 30th year of Artists Open Houses event with 260 venues taking part. Both started with just one house.
Now, a crop of independent home-gallerists are carving out businesses that don’t tie into a scheduled festival – yet. Some are artists themselves, reinventing their private homes two to four times a year, so they can control how their own work is sold and cherry-pick other artists and designers to join them.
Others are curators, seizing the opportunity to have the gallery they always dreamed about without the overheads associated with renting a separate space. Hosts take less commission from exhibitors than traditional galleries – 20 to 30 per cent compared to the 50 per cent gallery rate – and de-stigmatise the stuffy, intimidating reputation of art to boot.
For the buyer it’s about purchasing choice pieces by established and emerging names, in the kind of informal setting that’s easy to identify with. That, and you get to have a good snoop at someone else’s house.
Business partners Juliana Cavaliero and Debra Finn launched their home gallery Cavaliero Finn in Juliana’s south London home in 2003 “when it was still quite original,” says Cavaliero. The pair, friends who met while studying art at university, often talked about working together. Then, after a 10-year career in the art world working for various galleries, including Anthony d’Offay, Cavaliero had her first child and “it was a natural time to think about setting up alone”. By the time of their first event, |Finn, who formerly worked in public relations, was pregnant with her first son.
Neither partner is an artist or designer, but both saw the benefits of creating a work-life that involved their passion and slotted around family and the home. Cavaliero Finn throws two weekend events a year, each starting with a private view on the Friday night for 150 guests.
In Cavaliero’s past career she worked with such names as Rachel Whiteread, but now the focus is to “find art that people can imagine in their own homes. It can’t be too conceptual.” A stable of names are rotated for each event – ceramicist Shan Annabelle Valla, textile artist Claire Heathcote and painter Gill Rocca among them – and both curators work hard at sourcing new makers.
They exhibit the work of 15 to 20 people per event. Their next event on 7-8 May includes work by the Latvian painter Jelena Benson and the |furniture designer Alexena Cayless, whose chairs incorporate traditional craftsmanship of British shoe |manufacturer Cheaneys. Cayless, a rising star, was designer-in-residence at the Design Museum last year.
Part of getting the line-up right is also about offering a cross-section of prices. “You can buy a beautiful bowl by Alice Mara for £20 or a painting by Gill Rocca for £3,000,” says Cavaliero. To some extent economics dictated the decision to use Cavaliero’s home as the gallery – a three-storey home with a relatively open ground floor, it was always the obvious choice between the partners’ two homes. But keeping it domestic was the |driving force behind the idea. “When you put art in a white cube it changes everything.”
There are obvious downsides to opening up your home to Joe Public, however. Juliana’s husband Andrew Somerville and three children usually clear out for the weekend. “It is an upheaval,” Juliana says. And, there’s the laborious preparing of the house – clearing belongings, hammering nails into walls and collating pieces takes days. “My husband would say I’m difficult to live with the week before.”
Artist and designer Jehane Boden Spiers, who has run her home-gallery The Yellow House in Brighton since 1996, knows the graft continues after each event too. “I have to go around with the paintbrush every year, to paint over hand marks,” she says.
Boden Spiers opens to the public every weekend in May as part of Brighton’s Artists Open Houses, an event that evolved after painter Ned Hoskins first opened his house in 1982 to coincide with the Brighton Festival. Around 1500 artists and makers now exhibit in homes in and around Brighton annually and 250,000 plus visitors attend – proceeds this year are expected to exceed £1m.
Like Ned, Boden Spiers’s business was born out of the desire to promote her own work, but she had her first experience exhibiting at another artist’s home. She loves how a domestic space can demystify art for people – especially those intimidated by formal galleries – and the social aspect of exhibiting with others. Attracting 2,000 to 3,000 visitors each May, she always turns a profit and the business now includes an extensive online shop – something also in the works for Cavaliero Finn.
As for outlandish behaviour from house guests? The worst Boden Spiers can recall is people opening cupboards or holding paint swatches up to her yellow walls. Juliana has fielded questions about her astroturf lawn and her kitchen extension. She’s now friends with the neighbours who originally grilled her on the latter – all in a weekend’s work.
Boden Spiers, who also exhibits regular names with new – “around half in half,” she reckons – loves finding new talent. She added recent graduate artist Emily Milne Wallis’s line drawings to The Yellow House repertoire last year. “As soon as I saw her work, I thought ‘this artist is going to be fantastic’,” she says. “It’s exciting seeing her on the cusp of it.”
Vanessa Barlow and Jethro Marshall get a similar buzz out of their home business in Lyme Regis. The Garden House Studio is a holiday-let in a 1960s outbuilding in the couple’s garden. The twist is that practically everything in it is also available to buy – save for the fitted kitchen and space-saving fold-down beds.
The former Londoners, “would have liked to do a gallery-cum-shop in there, but physically because of the space, the location and financially, I don’t think it would have worked,” says Barlow. “We get a fairly regular income from this.”
Marshall came up with the “try-and-buy” concept and the couple, both from fashion backgrounds, spent six months renovating and decorating their tiny building in their favourite mid-century style. They sourced (mainly) vintage furniture for the space, including “some named pieces – Arne Jacobsen chairs (£395 each) – “but we’re trying to keep to ‘not-names’ to make it accessible,” says Barlow. A retro Heals textile wall-hanging (£220), original Pelican books (£5) and crockery by local potter Berry Peeling (£8 for a mug), who’s style is “stuck in the 1950s,” he says, are among the charming, affordable accessories for sale.
The holiday-let opened in January this year and is designed to be “affordable, modern, interesting with a good level of comfort, so that we can appeal to a good cross section of people”. Prices start at around £230 for a three-night stay. Marshall still works at his London fashion marketing agency, so Vanessa handles the day-to-day running of the business. Both utilise their love of rummaging in markets, car boot sales and on the internet for new stock.
They also view their new business as safeguarding a future in Lyme Regis. “A lot of people had tough times last year and there was a realisation that it would be really good to not think that Marshall would have to go back to London full-time or that we’d ever have to move back there,” says Vanessa. “It’s also a great thing to do around the children,” Holly, seven Marni, six and Luc, four.
Something they hadn’t banked on having to worry about though, is their own house, visible from the nearby studio. “I can’t just leave the weeding anymore,” says Barlow.
Cavaliero Finn 020 8244 8102; www.cavalierofinn.com
The Garden House Studio 07713 150943; www.thegardenhousestudio.com
The Yellow House 01273 697985; www.yellowhouseart.com