Three or four hundred years ago, people liked a little music in the home. After a day spent, oh, chasing stags or brewing mead, they'd send for a few musicians and invite the neighborhood to enjoy some tunes on the lute and the harpsichord. The giving went both ways. Friends were treated to an intimate recital. Musicians got exposure, practice and word-of-mouth endorsements (some even ended up at court, playing for kings and queens).
The custom of opening one's home to showcase artists and musicians is alive and well in Madison. For artists, it can be a rewarding way to introduce others to their work. For guests, it's a chance to browse, talk and buy.
"I usually play ‘plugged in,' so a house concert is a richer, more fundamental experience for me," says Julia McConahay, a contemporary fiddle player who performs in coffeehouses and bars around Madison. "People are listening. They appreciate the results of the writing process."
House concerts eliminate the middleman. Hosts typically suggest a $10 donation per guest, and CDs are sold separately (often at less than retail price). Artists take the whole cut.
"At a party with 30 guests, a solo artist can take home $300," says McConahay. "That's about right for three hours of playing."
But the real benefit, says McConahay, is in touching hearts and souls with live music in an intimate setting.
"People have this sense of a complete experience," she says. "Guests will tell us, ‘I can't wait to say I knew you when.'"
It's not just music that can be enjoyed and promoted through an in-home party.
"I encourage anyone who makes beautiful things to be bold enough to share them," says Joan Sample, whose handmade button jewelry is colorful, creative and friendly - like Sample herself. She grew up in Madison, works for the UW Hospital as an facilities designer, and can't make it once around the Farmers' Market without bumping into at least two or three neighbors, a co-worker or an old high school buddy. Now she's turning loyal friends into happy customers through open houses for Black Button Studio, her nascent business.
"A lot of artists expect people to come to them," says Shirley Crocker, Sample's friend and neighbor on the near west side of Madison. "Not Joan. She has this blend of creativity and determination that I really admire."
Good will and admiration is helping Sample sell her work. She invites everybody on her huge e-mail list to parties in her own home, where, on a good day, she can sell more than $2,000 worth of the Black Button Studio art she creates in a spare room upstairs.
"We're all concerned with buying local food. Well, an art open house gives you a chance to buy local art," says Sample, who notes that such an event isn't about corporate sales pitches (what she calls "the Tupperware spiel"), but sharing the creativity through back-and-forth exchanges with her friends and neighbors.
Sample's invitations read like shout-outs ("I want to thank all my fantastic supporters...come and check out my work"), and she sometimes dangles a big marketing hook ("for every friend you bring, you can put your name in the magic prize bowl!"). But once they're in the door, potential customers are treated like guests. Sample bustles in and out with coffee and chocolate, taking care not to hover. Friends wander in, mingle and admire the whimsical earrings, pins and necklaces artfully displayed on the black velvet swatch thrown over her dining room table. The setting is casual and pleasant. Pressure to buy is nonexistent.
"I have a sense of my customer base now," says Sample, whose work is also sold at shops in Boulder Junction and Baraboo. "It's like having my own gallery space. And each time I make a sale, word spreads."
Dawn Dark Mountain, an award-winning local artist whose American Woodland Indian watercolors and woodcuts are sold at art fairs, galleries and museum shops around the country, has held a holiday open house in her Monona home for the last seven years.
"I see it as a public relations opportunity," she says. "I like giving my customers a chance to see where I live and work, and it's fun to socialize with them."
Dark Mountain admits it's a lot of work. She cleans the house from top to bottom, festoons it with holiday decorations and prepares refreshments. She invites other artists to exhibit as well, and helps them set up their displays.
"With all the work we put into it, we feel it only makes sense to make it a two-day event," she says. "That way, football fans have a chance to come."
Dark Mountain's upstairs studio is open to guests, and as you tiptoe past her brushes and canvases, there's a privileged sense of sharing in the mysterious creative process. After that, it's almost impossible to leave the party without one of her paintings under your arm.