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ARTICLES // Open Up (2003)

This article was originally published in Brighton’s ‘Insight‘ magazine in 2003. While the content is anything but ‘gonzo‘ in style, the writing of it has its own story, created as it was under pretty frenetic circumstances.

Back in early 2003, my personal life was hanging in the balance and, unbeknownst to me, my time in Brighton was drawing to a close. I needed time and space to get away and think a little. My father presented me with a sudden opportunity to get away to Africa for a week in order to celebrate my sister’s 30th birthday with her – she was living in Tanzania at the time.

Never one to stare a gift horse in the mouth and knowing that it was both what I needed and something I’d long dreamed of too, I jumped at the chance and took him up on the offer. It was also during the period that the clamour for war in the Middle East was reaching fever pitch and I was delighted to have the chance to get away from those voices in the corridors of power and in the media that were steamrollering the Western and Arab worlds towards disaster. The millions who’d marched through London on the previous month hadn’t been able to stop a thing, and there was a depressing stench of inevitability about the whole misadventure.

About a week before my hastily arranged flight was due to depart, ‘Insight’ magazine got in touch with me to write a piece on Brighton artists Open Houses schemes that run during the Brighton Festival. Then as now, I’m not a writer with offers of publication lining up at my door. I agreed to do it despite the lunatic demands that it’d place on my schedule, glad of the opportunity to get my writing out to an audience.

There were a couple of days within which to do the research, mainly during the lunch breaks of the new job I’d just started. Grabbed my notes and interviews, packed my bags and made for Heathrow where I was to begin writing the first draft. Waiting in some airport bar or other for my father to arrive, I managed to at least get it started.

Had been going to write more on the flight, but didn’t manage to. Got off the plane at Dar Es Salaam and was confronted by tropical heat of which I’d never known and my first time setting foot on African soil. This fact was rather more overwhelming than a publishing deadline and I soaked in every new sight, smell and sound.


Back at my sister’s place, I managed to finish off writing the piece and then had to type it up. The power supply to small African villages tends to be intermittent at best, yet grabbing whatever moments of juice I could out of a faltering laptop, I got the piece written up.


The deadline came into play again and as they didn’t have an Internet connection at the house, we had to drive an hour to the nearest town to find the Internet cafe that she often used. Slow as the connection was and as old as the computer there was too, I managed to get the article sent off to the magazine just about in time for their submission deadline.

There was something quite bizarre about writing of people in an English seaside town letting the public into their houses to look at their paintings from the perspective of a creaky Internet cafe in a dusty town that opened out onto the African bush. It may have played its own part in helping me to reassess my priorities and draw the conclusion that the time was ripe to expatriate and see what else was out there other than my own little island.

The original article was edited slightly by ‘Insight’ and appears in that form here. Tempting as it was to go fully gonzo and write instead about the circumstances in which the story was written, I managed to write just about the Brighton artists after all!

Photo of Tanzanian villager’s house by Hans Jamet.

Open Up

It must be something in the air. Not just the fresh sea breezes that can awaken the senses, but a sprinkle of that extra ‘something’ that makes Brighton such a touch paper for innovation, such a creative laboratory. Some early techniques of cinema were developed in Hove. Anita Roddick helped to usher in the concept of the ‘ethical consumer’ with her first Body Shop in Brighton. In the early Seventies, the means that would allow networks to communicate with each other and pave the way for what we now know to be the Internet, were presented at Sussex University.

On a lesser scale, while many people wouldn’t dream of letting the general public across their threshold for a look around their own private space, a growing number of individuals from right across the city, openly encourage it during the burst of spring madness that is the Brighton Festival.

‘I think the visiting public initially feel a sense of wonder that anyone would do such a thing’, says Jehane Boden Spiers, an Open House artist. ‘They enjoy meeting artists who make the work, as opposed to in galleries and shops, which are far less personal. They also enjoy seeing the work in context and I think it helps people to think about how to display artwork in their own homes.’

The Open House concept began in 1982 by Ned Hoskins. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity to exhibit art in Brighton at the time, he opened his house to the public and also exhibited other artists. In 1989, the ‘Five at Fiveways’ group was set up. Such was its success that it exploded across Brighton during the 1990’s. Other artists joined the group, other groups sprang up all over the region (Kemp Town Artists, Seven Dials Artists, the Lewes Group), and the concept became arguably the main attraction to the Festival itself.

The Kemp Town Open House trail stretching from the brightly coloured terraces near Queen’s Park right down to the sea is a particular favourite with tourists as a fair degree of the art features boats, the sea, Victorian frontages and The Downs. Belinda Lloyd, co-ordinator, told The Insight, ‘This year musicians are going to join the trail so as people wander the streets of Kemp Town they will be accompanied by buskers and in the houses may even come upon a harpist, saxophonist or string quartet!’

Colin Ruffell, a former secretary of the Fiveways Artists Group and exhibiting artist himself, estimates that there are now over 200 Open Houses and Studios operating during the festival, with 100-300 visitors per week, making up to 100,000 people enjoying these unique opportunities to experience art. Open Houses can now be found all over Sussex, including Ditchling, Hove and Portslade, and have even spread to places like Oxford, Cambridge, Kent, Cornwall and Buckinghamshire.

Jehane says ‘anything and everything!’ is on display– Ceramics, Jewellery, Painting, Sculpture, Mosaic, Textiles, Wood, Metal, Glass, Photography, Video, Literature. It makes it possible for artists to make their work more affordable to the buying public. Visitors can also commission pieces directly with the artist, which could be an otherwise daunting prospect.

Open Houses have become so successful that they may have even outgrown the Festival itself. Jehane Boden Spiers says that it has become quite a feat to even see 10% of what is on show. ‘I can see more houses opening up at other times of the year, apart from May,’ she says. ‘This is already happening… some houses have organised Christmas shows’.

Information on Open Houses 2003 can be found in the Brighton Festival Fringe brochure, which is available from thousands of outlets across the city. The following weblinks also contain further information:

Fiveways Artists Group

The first Open House art buying website

Colin Ruffell’s own site

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