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Glass Act : Glasswork artist Therese Baisinger says she can't really lower costs--her kilns run for long periods, no matter what the size of the object she's working on.

The Craft of The Cutback

Santa Cruz County atists peddling their wares at the next three weekends' Open Studios tours prepare for a slimmer season.

By Jessica Lussenhop

Most people would say it's a terrible time to invest, and the sentiment seems to have trickled down the economic food chain from high-risk stocks to a simpler market--the art world. The financial crisis has dealt local artists a blow as the 23rd Annual Open Studios Art Tour approaches, adding an extra whiff of panic to an event that's seen sales and profits slide over the last few years. In an attempt to prep almost 300 participants, the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County made sure to offer some cautionary advice.

"There are people out in society who see art as an extraneous thing," says Ann Ostermann, events manager at the Cultural Council. "We've said, be ready for not making as many sales." Ostermann estimates that artists typically spend about $2,000 to $3,000 each year, not only to fill their studios with saleable work but to produce the educational portion of the exhibit and provide refreshments. She says this year's artists were advised that they may want to produce lower price-point cards, posters, giclee prints or smaller, nook-sized artwork--the so-called "bread and butter" item--in order to encourage people to spend what little they have.

Jeweler Melissa Zahm shifted her focus well below her normal price range, even though it meant taking a hit herself. "I started making a line of earrings that I basically am making nothing on for my time," she says, estimating that at $38 to $48 per pair, she makes a couple of dollars per hour on each sale. "I appreciate people coming in, and the small sales add up. Someday, the economy will turn around and they'll remember my work and they come back."

Getting people in the door is half the battle--lower traffic over the past few years may stem from window shopper's guilt, not to mention it can be particularly tough to entice patrons to faraway studios. Kirby Scudder, the executive director of Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Arts, is running a bus for the first time from the Tannery to a different outlying art 'hood each day, to create the same communal feeling of the cluster studios downtown, and to encourage people to go out of their way to see great art.

"Those are the areas that have been the hardest hit in the last few years and I think it is the gas money," says Ostermann. Glassworker Therese Baisinger, whose studio is in Bonny Doon, says she now has to find ways to entice people up the mountain.

"I had a large group of people who always came down from San Francisco. Last year, those people were completely gone," she says.

"The whole driving around for fun thing--it doesn't seem politically correct to people." Baisinger, a 10-year veteran of Open Studios, concentrated her efforts on marketing, since her materials and work method don't lend themselves to cutbacks.

"I'm running those kilns for 27 hours. That's a lot of electricity and it's a lot of glass," she says. Like Baisinger, some artists haven't changed their inventory plans much at all, and are instead relying on the unpredictable nature of people's reaction to art and the power of that gotta-have-it moment.

"When times are tough, people feel like they should spoil themselves," says painter James Aschbacher, who points to Open Studios 2001, immediately after 9/11 and the Sunday the Army began bombing Afghanistan. "That day, I had the biggest day ever of Open Studios. People were buying things left and right off the wall. I don't know why."

And then when all else fails, there's layaway. Artists have also been encouraged by the Cultural Council to consider holding pieces to allow their patrons time to pay it off, or even accepting credit cards. "That's the American way, right?" says Aschbacher.

THE 23RD ANNUAL OPEN STUDIOS ART TOUR is 11am-6pm, Oct. 4-5 (South County), Oct. 11-12 (North County) and Oct. 18-19 (encore studios). The Artist Guide Calendar is $20, available at dozens of locations around town. The Open Studios Art Tour bus will run each day, depending on interest; $30/day. For reservations email [email protected] or call 831.227.5971.

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