In 2001 eleven artists within a small block in the Whanganui CBD banded together to open their studios to the public for a weekend.

Sixteen years later more than 100 artists in 77 studios throughout the wider Whanganui region participate in Artists Open Studios which is now one of the biggest events on the city’s calendar.

Zaryd Wilson talks to those involved ahead of 2017 Artists Open Studios which gets underway on March 24.

In March 2001 art lovers followed directions on an A4 piece of photocopy paper to visit eleven artists’ studios dotted along Whanganui’s Taupo Quay.

The simple arts trail idea was taken from a similar event in Cambridge in the UK and first organised in Whanganui by artists Catherine Macdonald and Sue Cooke.

“Our first was just an A4 sheet of paper with a map on one side and the artists on the other,” Cooke recalls.

“It was just the block from the Avenue to just past the Community Arts Centre. There were 11 artists in that area at the time and I think we were just going to do it as see what happened. Everyone put $50 in and away we went really.”

Originally called Riverside Artists the event was actually held twice in 2001, the second time in conjunction with another festival in spring.

It was immediately successful.

“The next year we extended it along the other side of the river and then after that everybody wanted to be part of it,” Cooke says.

“By the time we’d done two or three it was really entrenched on the calendar and because it was growing it was all very exciting and to a degree very addictive.”

After a few years a trust was formed to run the event allowing it to continue on its own once Cooke and Macdonald had stepped away a few years later.

“I was really worried when I stepped off that it would fold because I thought it was a really good thing for the city and for artists and it was a really hard decision to make,” Cooke says.

“It’s a testament to the fact that the community really love it and own it and it survives changing management.”

The 2017 Artists Open Studios is the first time the event has been run by Whanganui Events Trust which has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Artists Open Studios Trust.

Kathy Cunningham, Adrian Hailwood, Hamish McDouall, Billy Apple and Sarah Williams at the announcement of the cover competition winner

Sarah Williams is the coordinator and back after taking a year off in 2016.

Williams moved to Whanganui to study and stayed after she graduated, setting up Space Studio and Gallery on Taupo Quay.

She says Artists Open Studios is a key event in terms of supporting artists and profiling Whanganui’s art scene.

“A lot of people come here and fall in love with Whanganui because you get such a varied picture.

“You’re not just getting all the arts community but you’re getting all the heritage and all the interesting quirks about Whanganui as well as you’re kind of cruising around. You’re meeting such a huge range of people.”

Williams is enjoying the new energy which has come with working alongside the Whanganui Events Trust and it’s given her the confidence to make some long-needed changes to the event.

“It’s been exciting to work alongside Kathy (Whanganui Events Trust CEO, Kathy Cunningham) who’s got years and years of experience in event management. Just to have that support of her and ideas.

The Artists Open Studios catalogue from 2004

This year’s cover image – William by Amy Fitzgerald

“We’re modernising things, making the website mobile friendly and having Google maps. It’s just way more friendly for a younger generation.”

This year online registrations were introduced along with a redesigned catalogue and website.

There was also the inaugural cover competition held last year to find the cover art for the event catalogue.

“It’s something that I’ve always really wanted to see, particularly with the catalogue, that it become a much more visual publication,” Williams says.

“It’s all about bring art back to the forefront of the event. I mean, it’s about the art. It’s about promoting the artist.”

Midweek workshops are also becoming a bigger part of the event to bridge the gap between the two weekends.

“It’s just an opportunity for visitors to extend their stay in Whanganui. We’re hoping that will impact accommodation and that sort of thing,” Williams says.

“It also gives the artist another opportunity for them to be able to support themselves during the event.”

Kathy Cunningham says it’s not about growing for the sake of it but looking for new opportunities such as the Palate to Plate and fundraiser auction.

“That’s a significant change and a significant opportunity,” she says.

“I think what’s important is that we look at the whole event and add value where we can.

“It’s about working with what we have and making it better and that does include workshops and maybe a lecture or two.”

Rita Dibert has participated in Artists Open Studios since the beginning and has seen all the changes over nearly two decades.

“Back then we all new each other really well and most of us were doing degrees or had degrees,” she says.

While it’s broadened now she says Artists Open Studios remains a key to keeping art alive in the city.

“It’s a big day out for a lot of people. It would be great if we got more groups coming in from other parts of New Zealand.”

But what many of the artists also say is it takes a lot of money, time and effort to prepare for the event.

“Most of us spend weeks getting ready for this. It’s not just making art but it’s getting your studio ready,” Dibert says.

“A lot of people do it as a kind of entertainment thing.”

In return the artists need to be supported.

Sue Cooke says people need to be encouraged to support artists by buying work.

“Arts worldwide are diminishing in sales and the creative sector is being eroded,” she says.

“One of my theories is people – with cell phones and laptops – they get saturated with so much imagery that they don’t have the same need to hang it on their wall.

“My husband and I do as much as we can to foster and encourage people into buying. It should very much be an event where people come to buy.”

Cunningham, too, wants to people to see Whanganui art as an investment not just in economic terms but in social.

“I believe art creates a vibrant community.”

Meanwhile, Williams says the event has capacity to grow further.

“With the right support,” she says.

This year we’ve gone from 69 studios and now we’re back up to 77. We won’t really know visitor number until after.”

She says it estimated at around 4000 people come to Artists Open Studios.

“It’s a really nice way for people to introduce themselves to art,” Williams says.

“I think sometimes people can find engaging with art in a gallery quite intimidating.

“This is a way more personal approach. You’re going into people’s homes, their private studios and you’re chatting to the artist.

“And it’s busy too so if you want to you can be a bit of a fly on the wall and just cruise around and do your own thing.

“It’s quite fascinating going into someone’s studio. It’s almost like you’re going into their mind a little bit, you know. Every artist works in a different way.”

Visit http://openstudios.co.nz/ for full event information.