Learning to Walk

Thirty years after Seattle introduced art walk to the world, a second generation is bringing the art—and the crowds—to your neighborhood.

Sean Brown wants to be part of an art walk. He recently opened the Pike Street Press on the Hill Climb between Western Avenue and First Avenue in downtown Seattle and he knows that a monthly neighborhood-wide art-centric open house would draw more eyeballs into his shop and boost business. But there is a problem.

“I haven’t been able to get on the other art walks,” says the 24-year-old, whose shop is just out of range of Pioneer Square’s First Thursday event, the world’s longest-running art walk.

On every first Thursday, the galleries and businesses that line the streets of Seattle’s oldest neighborhood fill with people in search of art. As the sun sets, they crowd into artist-run collectives and spaces of all shapes and sizes: Gallery 110, Gallery4Culture, Seattle Art Museum. They climb their way up into the hive of studios at 619 Western, they line up to enter alleyways transformed into artsy hangouts and they tour previously vacant storefronts now filled with art installations. Sometimes they buy art. 
More often they buy sandwiches and drinks at local delis and restaurants. It’s no wonder Brown wants to be a part of this.

“I’m trying to start one myself,” he says. “I’ve been going around to other galleries and talking with them and getting their feedback and working with the Market on trying to find a good day for it. I figured I could print up the flyers and maps for it. How many galleries do you think it takes to make an art walk?”

This question is not rhetorical. And it isn’t new. Ever since a group of Pioneer Square gallery owners started their own art walk 30 years ago, community activists have been adopting the model as a way to enliven their communities while supporting the arts. In 2010 there were more than 25 regular art walks in communities up and down Western Washington. That number continues to grow, with Auburn and Columbia City adding their names to the list this month. Brown will also launch his walk—an event that will focus on artisans along what he calls the Pike Hike. He will need some help.

Fortunately, help isn’t far off. This month marks the official launch of the Seattle Art Walk Consortium, a collection of the city’s leading art walk organizers, including a group of directors from the Pioneer Square, Phinneywood, West Seattle and Capitol Hill art walks, as well as a membership that includes every major art walk in the city. Together, they support and promote art walk events, especially in smaller neighborhoods.

“Everybody knows about First Thursday, but they don’t realize that the city has very interesting, vibrant, artsy, food/drink micro-neighborhoods,” says Jeanine Anderson, the Consortium operations director. “We want to take that same idea and gear it toward people who want to go out, have a cheap date, do something in a new neighborhood,” she continues.

Anderson provides the Consortium’s business know-how while Michael Ellsworth of red-hot design firm Dumb Eyes serves as its creative director. The group has already received a grant from Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs to launch, a one-stop shop that will help art adventurers in the same way that online directories currently help foodies find farmer’s markets. The consortium aims to boost both commerce and a sense of community.

When Pioneer Square’s original art dealers first opened their doors in unison in 1981, they were largely focused on exposing people to their art. Since then, Pioneer Square’s monthly event has grown into something much larger. In a neighborhood that has struggled economically in recent decades, First Thursday has become a beating heart, inspiring works of public art in the neighborhood’s squares and alleys and, recently, filling empty storefronts through the Seattle Storefronts project.

“Residents, artists and businesses are benefitting,” says Lori Patrick, of the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. “The Storefronts installations and residencies bring new energy, increase foot traffic for merchants, improve safety and ultimately can help get empty spaces leased.”

According to Anderson, smaller art walks hope to reinvigorate their neighborhoods, too.

“Neighborhood art walks are a little bit different than First Thursday, because a lot of the venues aren’t necessarily galleries or studios,” says Anderson, who has co-produced Capitol Hill’s Blitz Art Walk for the past two years. “Some are, but there is also representation by non-gallery businesses, whether it’s a coffee shop or a restaurant or a retail store. Art walks help to bring people into places that they wouldn’t otherwise go and they help keep our economy, our local businesses supported.” Georgetown’s monthly Art Attack, for instance, manages to be one of the city’s most vibrant, despite the fact that none of its 41 destinations is a full-time art gallery.

In addition to supporting businesses, Anderson says, the art walks keep neighborhoods safe by generating pedestrian traffic (even if just once a month) and teach emerging artists how to show their work, accept feedback and set prices.

Before an art walk can teach an artist how to do business, though, community members have to learn how to do art walks, which is one of the primary purposes of the Seattle Art Walk Consortium. For willing business owners like Pike Street Press owner Sean Brown, the Consortium offers years of lessons in failure and success that, until now, had to be learned the hard way.

“The key is that we aren’t competitive at all,” Anderson says. “We’re just trying to help each other out.” •