Austin Studio Tour: How Austin Artists are Adapting to COVID-19

Annabel Andre, Staff Writer

Due to COVID-19, many annual events faced logistical challenges this year. The Austin Studio Tour was no different. In the studio tour’s 18th year, many artists struggled to interact with Austinites in the same ways they are used to. 

The studio tour, run by the nonprofit organization Big Medium, changed to accommodate the pandemic. This year, for the first time, the East Austin Studio Tour and West Austin Studio Tour, which usually would take place in the fall and spring respectively, were combined into one event. West Austin Studio Tour was postponed earlier this year due to COVID-19, and the two events were staged together from Nov. 14 through Nov. 22. Artists were encouraged to do virtual shows of their art and outdoor exhibits while wearing masks and practicing social distancing, but many reported not being able to share their art as successfully as they would on a normal year.

Andy St. Martin is a painter on the east side of Austin and has been a part of the studio tour for 18 years. He was in the catalog this year, but he found it difficult to hold virtual events and had no way to have an outdoor exhibit. Although there wasn’t much he could do this year, St. Martin said participating in the tour is a tradition for him. 

“I’ve been in all of them, I’ve been in the tour every year since the beginning, I’m a part of the community,” St. Martin said. “It’s almost like a holiday or a family ritual or something at this point. When you’ve done it 17 times every year at the same time, with a lot of the same people, it feels odd not to do it. This year is so different, it’s really hard to say what’s going to  happen. I’m actually almost more eager to do it this year because the year has been so unsettled.”

As someone who has been an artist in Austin for decades, St. Martin has seen the city’s art scene and the tour develop. According to him, there are more artists who want to be in Austin and that the art is taken much more seriously now. He said that the tour is supported by more art lovers every year.

“Back then there were just fewer of us,” St. Martin said. “It was a little more rough around the edges. It seems like there are less freeloaders [now], people just looking for free drinks and snacks, and more serious art patrons and viewers. There’s also more people, and a lot of people who were strangers are no longer strangers. It’s matured in the ways you might expect.”

Similar to St. Martin, Brian Johnson, an artist who works mostly with wood and resin, has also been participating in the studio tour since it began in 2003. Johnson runs an art gallery called Cloud Tree with two other artists. Their gallery was in the catalog this year, but they didn’t participate in this year’s tour. Instead, they did their own show the following weekend.

“In the catalogue, there’s an image of my work, but there’s really not much to connect with without going to my website and seeing what I do,” Johnson said. “My studio, Cloud Tree, is an art space and gallery space. We are doing a little open studio tour: a friendly, very safe, open studio, the weekend after Thanksgiving, on the 28th and 29th. But that’s a completely separate thing from the studio tour that Big Medium generally puts on because they don’t want to be associated with any kind of in-person contact.”

Johnson wasn’t able to do much for the tour and said he feels that many artists are in the same situation as him, but many decided not even to be in the catalog. He said that may be because it’s hard for people to plan virtual shows or outdoor events. 

“They are not participating because they’re not really sure how to wrap their heads around what it means to be in a virtual tour,” Johnson said. “I had a show right at the beginning of COVID in the spring of this year. It was interesting to engage with, but it ultimately didn’t give me much traffic, and it was a lot of work. The virtual tour is not the most beneficial way to get people to see your work. The ability to put on a virtual art tour is still in its infancy…there’s no comparison to the two experiences that are so different.”