Marin Open Studios Cofounder Kay Carlson on 30 Years of Supporting Local Art

Marin Open Studios Kay Carlson

As cofounder of Marin Open Studios (MOS), Kay Carlson has worked tirelessly to ensure this annual event promoting local artists’ work has survived — and thrived. Now in its 30th year, the 2023 event kicks off with the gallery opening and fundraiser gala on April 29 at a new location, the new Sausalito Center for the Arts, followed by open studios at locations countywide the first two weekends in May. A talented artist in her own right, Carlson is a landscape painter who finds inspiration in Marin’s many scenic locales. Here, Carlson shares how MOS got its start, as well as her favorite places to paint.

What inspired you to launch Marin Open Studios?  

I landed in San Francisco with other artists from across the country in the early 1970s, studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and then worked as an assistant director for a gallery. In the ’80s, I was painting and moved to Woodacre. By 1990 I had a body of work inspired by the West Marin landscape and opened a studio at the Sausalito ICB, joining this vibrant community of artists. 

By living in West Marin, I realized that many artists in the county didn’t know one another and there wasn’t an organization to bring the community together. From my experience selling art and assisting artists, I wanted to connect artists to collectors, and I was asked to join the Marin Art Council (MAC) board to urge them to start Marin Open Studios. They refused.

MOS was born from my relationships with other artists and collectors who came to the ICB Winter Open Studios. One evening in the Sausalito City Council chambers at an opening for ICB artist Tim Rose’s work, an inner voice said, “start a countywide open studios event,” so I turned to Tim and asked him to be my partner. He said yes, and we were off and running in 1993. Our goal was to create an event that would allow artists to support their careers, and connect to the community. 

How has the event and organization changed over the years?

The essential elements of MOS are still in place 30 years later: Plan the event; gather artists; produce a tour guide with advertising, donor, and sponsor campaigns; find a large space for a near month-long exhibition; and produce it with artist volunteers. We’re so grateful that philanthropist Peggy Haas is still supporting us, along with the Marin Community Foundation and other generous donors.

Tim and I sold the fledgling Marin Open Studios event to the Marin Art Council in 1996 after it became a big success, and they produced it well for 15 years. When MAC went out of business, I fervently believed Marin Open Studios was a viable and important event for the arts in Marin. I wouldn’t let it dissolve because I had experienced the vibrancy of the event and its impact on Marin. It was sold back to me for a dollar. I joined with a grassroots committee, including artist Bob Amos, and we evolved into a freestanding nonprofit operating since 2012 with strong board support.

The biggest change in MOS is the stability we achieved after MAC dissolved in 2012 and MOS came back to artist community control. The other large changes in MOS involve keeping up with technology. We launched a new website last year — it’s a significant challenge to profile more than 250 artists, connect them to social media and fundraise for our programs. 

What can we expect at this year’s event?

We’re excited to present the opportunity to see more than 250 artists in many diverse media and styles. The big surprise is that MOS has a new location for our gallery, formerly at the Corte Madera Town Center. This year we’re being hosted by the new Sausalito Center for the Arts (SCA), opening April 29 at 750 Bridgeway. Visitors can plan their adventure with our tour guide, distributed in this issue of Marin Magazine. You can also pick it up at SCA. Go to to learn about the featured artists. These artists’ studios will be open for the first two weekends in May, countywide.

Are there any new artists participating that we should keep a look out for?

Marin Open Studio Gallery Gala

There are 40 new artists in this year’s Marin Open Studios to discover. We’re showcasing Aya Okawa, an environmental artist, and Laura Kimpton, a legendary Burning Man artist. Both internationally known.

Does Marin Open Studios host any other events during the year?

MOS has a team that installs art at Bon Air Center with four shows a year in the former David M. Bryan location. The Bank of Marin will be newly hosting exhibits in various branches. MOS artists will be featured at the Marin Civic Center this year in November and December. Follow the artists on our social media pages throughout the year to find new artwork and events they post on their personal Marin Open Studios page. We’re actively looking for other venues to showcase Marin artists as well.

Tell us about your own art.

I’m a California colorist working en plein air (outdoors) and in the studio with layers of washes and thick brushstrokes. I bring a vibrant palette to the canvas and am passionate about how light transforms color. 

Where are your favorite places to paint? 

I love walking on the edge of the water in Sausalito behind my studio in the lateafternoon with views of Mount Tamalpais from nearly every direction and constantly changing light and clouds. I set up my outdoor easel and then take the small study I do indoors to create paintings, abstracting elements of floating boats and expressing life on the water. 

The Highway 1 coastline also beckons, and then there is Old Lakeville Road or a hilltop vineyard behind Gloria Ferrer winery. Years of painting outdoors here, the Southwest and Italy, inform the commissions I complete for my collectors. Those are done in my treasured ICB studio #331, a haven that tops my creative world.

What resources does Marin Open Studios provide for artists?

MOS’ year-round website (created by provides a profile page for each artist, where they can post images of their art, bio and events. We offer a robust social media campaign, email newsletters, an artist Facebook resources page and free workshops on how to promote their work. 

How can the community get involved with Marin Open Studios?

Marin Open Studio Gallery

They can sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest news and to discover artists, check out our social media pages and visit the website. In addition, many artists maintain their own social profiles and newsletters, so if you are a fan of their work, keep connected with them and attend their events. 

We also invite the community to become sponsors and donors, as well as volunteer to work an event or become a member of our board. We have donation and volunteer links on our website to make it easy.

Any plans to celebrate the event’s 30th anniversary this year?

The big news is, we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary at the new Sausalito Center for the Arts with an artists’ party and fundraiser gala on April 29. The theme is “30 Years Bold.” I plan to mark the occasion with my husband, Don McCartney, who branded Marin Open Studios with our logo when we met in 2011. He is an integral partner and mentor to me in this endeavor.    

How does Marin Open Studios ensure diversity, equity and inclusion?

We began formally supporting diversity in 2018 with scholarships to create a 60-foot mural in the lobby of Canal Alliance with Storek Studio Architecture. Now these artists have become professionals, creating three other murals with more coming. Six Canal Alliance artists are exhibiting this year at the Bay Model. Stop by for a visit! They’re also at the Marin Multicultural Center, on our map in the tour guide.

In 2020, director Oshalla Marcus opened the Marin City Art Gallery, and we supported the gallery with lights and supplies. Now their artists exhibit in the MOS gallery, and we plan to collaborate on more projects.

What are some of the ways Marin Open Studios gives back to the community?

Most importantly, we provide visibility to the vibrant and active creativity of artists in Marin. The intimacy of meeting artists in their working environment is inspiring and uplifting, including to children, who come with their families to get a look at art in action. We’ve long supported Youth in Arts by curating the annual Rising Stars Exhibition (now in its 34th year) and donating to student awards.

We also collaborate with other arts organizations. Recently, we supported the opening of the Sausalito Center for the Arts during the task force study. I’ve been on their Sausalito Center for the Arts board to connect and broadcast to Marin artists about this exciting new space.

Lotus Abrams

Lotus Abrams has covered everything from beauty to business to tech in her editorial career, but it might be writing about her native Bay Area that inspires her most. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Peninsula, where they enjoy spending time outdoors at the area’s many open spaces protected and preserved by her favorite local nonprofit, the Peninsula Open Space Trust.