Brighton and Hove’s Artists Open Houses Winter Festival opens its doors

Brighton and Hove’s Artists Open Houses Winter Festival is promising an exciting array of artists as it edges back towards normality.

Judy Stevens - AOH Festival Director
Judy Stevens - AOH Festival Director

The festival will take place in Brighton, Hove, Rottingdean and the South Downs village of Ditchling, running over December 4 and 5 and December 11 and 12.

Hundreds of artists and makers across the city will be opening their houses and studio spaces to the public, offering the rare opportunity to buy direct from the artists in their own homes.

Festival director Judy Stevens is looking forward to a great festival.

“Last year the May festival for which we were in the middle of planning and preparation got put on hold and we delayed the festival until October. We made all sorts of plans because we never really knew what would be able to go ahead and so we encouraged people to put up online images and they could also upload videos.

“And what happened was that the festival did go ahead. We put in place all the Covid measures such as social distancing and so on. It wasn’t normal!

“But then there was the November lockdown. We made provision for everybody to have an online presence and during the lockdown period of the festival it meant that when the houses could not open they at least had their online side.

“And this spring and summer we, along with the Fringe decided to go ahead not in May when things were still lockdown to some extent but we moved it to June and it really was fantastic. It was just when things were really opening up and the whole city came alive. It was smaller scale than usual but it was really great. The visitors really love being able to engage with the artists. For us it was smaller financially and a little bit more difficult but it was definitely very much worth doing and we were really pleased with the way it went.

“We can’t say now we are entirely back to normal. For the past few weeks there have been little worries about what might be happening and how safe it was going to be but it looks like we are going to be able to go ahead now which is great.

“For numbers we’re very slightly down on previous winters but not enough that people would really notice and I think actually the quality and the range of the work are really great.

“It has been a really tough time for artists. People have been able to show their work online but it’s really not the same as having an exhibition and having that face-to-face interaction with your audience which is just so important for creating a space and putting the work on show. Seeing people is really so much a part of what artists want to do. I think that it is really important to artists. Most of them spend a lot of their lives in quite solitary situations. It is great to have that connection back.”

Artists aren’t necessarily addressing the pandemic in their work: “For a lot of people they just want to move on but it is noticeable in the brochure that there’s a lot of work about nature this year and maybe that’s something that has happened because of the pandemic, people going out into nature and focusing on nature and just reflecting the countryside in their work. I do think perhaps that has become more important for artists in these times.”

And even if the work hasn’t particularly been changed by the pandemic, Judy feels that we certainly have been as people: “It has been such a shock. I don’t think we take things for granted quite so much anymore. We know that the stability that we used to have might not always be there anymore. And it is actually quite a good thing not to take things for granted so much but it is also quite troubling.”

As for organising the festival: “It was really, really difficult when the pandemic started. We were just about to go ahead with the festival and a lot of the preparatory work had already been done. There had been quite a lot of expense incurred and everybody wanted their money back. Fortunately for us the Arts Council and the council helped and we were able to return everybody’s money but it was stressful. But the Arts Council gave us some extra money so that we could develop other projects which was good.

“So we’re just hoping that everything can go ahead as much as normal as possible this year and then we are really focusing on next May which will be our 40th anniversary. We want to be really concentrating on that and to make sure that we have a really bumper year.”