The first art walk in the United States happened in 1981, when a handful of galleries in Pioneer Square decided to throw a joint opening. Thirty-one years later, on the first Thursday of each month, the party continues.
Different committees have steered it through the years, but the Pioneer Square Art Walk, now under the direction of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, remains true to its roots.
Lisa Dixon, director of marketing and communications for the Alliance for Pioneer Square, is sharp, with a keen eye for the neighborhood.
“Our organization has existed since the early ‘90s, but we didn’t become involved with the art walk until three years ago,” she explained, emphasizing that it is primarily a neighborhood, not an arts, organization.
First Thursday in Pioneer Square, running from 6 to 8 p.m., is Seattle’s most gallery-centric art walk, but it has grown to include private studios and local retailers.
“It is an active night in the neighborhood,” Dixon enthused. “There is a great atmosphere, and people make a night of it, sticking around after the art walk for dinner and drinks in the restaurants and bars.
On Capitol Hill, the art walk has been rechristened Blitz Capitol Hill Arts Walk and has moved to the second Thursday of each month.
“Why compete?’ asked Jeanine Anderson, organizer of the Blitz. “Outside of Pioneer Square, there is less concentration of galleries. We have alternative venues where you might not think about going to see the art. On any other night of the month, you would be going into these businesses for other reasons, but on Art Walk night, you are there for the art.
“We have a great relationship with the chamber of commerce, who gave us some initial funding with the goal of being self-sustainable, which we are now,” Anderson said. “One thing that makes it successful is that you don’t have to be part of the chamber to participate. It is open to any venue that wants to be involved.”
The quality of the art displayed in the Blitz’s 40 to 50 venues has improved with some of the vendors hiring professional curators, taking the load off the shoulders of lunchtime kitchen managers and putting it where it belongs. Although the official hours of the walk are from 5 to 8 p.m., some of the venues will stay open as late as midnight.
Not all neighborhoods are as conductive to art walks. In Wallingford, the struggle for visibility has been a losing battle. On the first Wednesday of any month, a person could walk up and down the main drag without finding much evidence of an art walk in progress.
This year, the elusive event happens only every other month, the next one being in April. Tara Shuttleworth, committee chair of the Art Walk Committee, is not on the board or staff of the chamber of commerce but is a private entrepreneur.
“We saw that we weren’t getting a lot of participation and felt that it was because we were not making it more of an effective event,” she said. “There are only four art galleries, and they are all dispersed. The rest are just restaurants, bars, salons and thrift stores.”
Her view is that cutting the number of walks will allow more time to work on giving them a higher profile. One of the things she spends this extra time on is the development of a theme for each walk. In February, the theme was love, and to get the neighborhood hyped up, a special event at QFC invited residents to create “Art Hearts” to show their love for Wallingford.
Rather than dissipate energy by lengthening the time between events, Columbia City consolidates its art-walk season.
Since most of the events take place outside, it seemed wise to consolidate the art walk to the months of May through September. Community Arts Create (CAC0), the organization behind the walk, could then focus its attention on other events and projects through the indoor months.
Wallingford could learn other lessons from Ben Hunter, founder and executive director of CAC, who is not simply a promoter but a man of vision. He explained the name “Bohemian Backstreets” as coming from the idea of a Southeast Seattle event that has the atmosphere of a Parisian street fair.
“It is an eclectic mix of people scrunched together in a small space,” he said. “One of the things that makes us a little more unique is that we try to offer more interactive art, so the visitors can engage in the art rather than just being a witness to it.”
Last year, CAC partnered with CleanScapes to paint trash cans on Rainier Avenue South, something Hunter wants to continue with this year.
“It makes the trash cans look better, so maybe more people will notice them and put them to good use.”
Then there is the alley revitalization project, which promotes the painting of murals in the alleys, helping to de-stigmatize the alleys as being dangerous places.
Hunter sees the art walk as an event for everyone, of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, from children to seniors, and so he has devised a schedule that will accommodate everyone. From 6 to 9 p.m., the art walk and street fair, which are more family events, takes place. Then, from 9 p.m. to midnight, Art After Hours takes over, with indoor events such as films and concerts taking place.
“We want everyone to be comfortable,” Hunter said. “Providing an atmosphere that demonstrates the diversity of Southeast Seattle, Bohemian Backstreets emphasizes and encourages an understanding of the diversity of art from around the world.”
Check SeattleArtists.com at www.seattleartists.com/blog for a complete guide to Seattle’s art walks, including times and dates.
BILL WHITE was a regular contributor to the arts section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its demise in 2009. He most recently was the film critic for Seattle PostGlobe. E-mail him at email@example.com.