A small crowd gathers to watch Rafael Alvarez, a student at the Maine College of Art on Congress Street, dance to his boom box outside the school during the First Friday ArtWalk this month. Other street performers eat fire or play music and sing.
Portland's First Friday ArtWalk may have become a victim of its own success.
Now in its 12th year, the art walk brings several thousand people to the streets of Portland on the first Friday of every month and generates as much as $1 million a year in economic activity.
It attracts not only art lovers, but street performers, diners, tourists and families looking for a fun and cheap night of entertainment.
It has become so popular, in fact, that some arts supporters fear it has veered from its original purpose of providing a low-key opportunity for people to visit galleries, socialize with friends and look at art.
People are looking at the art -- now more than ever. But they're not buying. And it's not a low-key experience.
Congress Street, from Monument Square to the Portland Museum of Art, is so crowded with performance artists, vendors and people-watchers that the galleries risk getting lost in the festival atmosphere.
Art walks have become flowing street fairs with dancers gyrating in storefront windows, out-of-pitch buskers hammering out songs on street corners, fire-eaters, break dancers, and sidewalk vendors hawking everything from wool hats to hot dogs.
"As it has become more festival-like, it feels that it's changed the tone of the event," said Jessica Tomlinson, director of the Artists at Work program at Maine College of Art, on Congress Street. "Early on, it was a gallery event. Now, it's a city arts event. It has spilled out of the galleries and has become much more of a pedestrian activity.
"You can participate in First Friday without going into a gallery," she said. "That's totally different from how it was even just a few years ago."
Gallery owners began the art walk as a way to put eyeballs in front of art. If they sold art, all the better.
Because the art walk has mushroomed into something of a social scene, many of the people who might be inclined to buy art are now staying away. The galleries are so crowded that it's getting harder to look seriously at work.
That raises the question of how the art walk should evolve.
Nat May, executive director of the nonprofit Space Gallery on Congress Street, suggests starting an additional art walk, to give people who really want to look at art a chance to reclaim the original purpose.
Space Gallery is so busy on First Fridays that May barely experiences the scope of the spectacle himself.
"I guess one of the questions I have is, at what point do we add a second event?" May said. "Are we ready for a Third Friday event? Do we need to get back to the idea of giving people a chance to go back and look at the galleries?
"I'm not saying it needs to be repaired," he said. "But why not encourage a second day of the month?"
AT START, A WAY TO ADD FOOT TRAFFIC
The First Friday ArtWalk began in the fall of 2000 as a low-barrier, no-pressure way to encourage people to soak in Portland's gallery scene without feeling pressure or intimidation.
The idea was simple, and not unique: encourage art galleries to stay open late on the first Friday of every month and create a self-guided walking tour from one end of Portland's peninsula to the other to let people drop in, socialize and look at art, and visit artists in their studios.
It was seen as a way to remove barriers, real or perceived, that discourage some folks from walking into a gallery if they have no intention of buying.
"If people become comfortable with the gallery experience on First Friday, perhaps they will return later to buy something," said Andres Verzosa, a gallery owner.
The Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, part of the larger Creative Portland Corp., administers the art walk today. It has received grants and attracted paid sponsors to support the art walk, which now involves several dozen venues -- and sometimes hundreds during the busiest months.
Verzosa, who owns Aucocisco Galleries on Exchange Street, helped originate the art walk when he ran his gallery on upper Congress Street. He and other business owners on the street hatched the idea as a way to generate foot traffic on their block.
"It has grown into a people-watching event," Verzosa said. "I still do it and I enjoy it. It's good for me and good for my gallery. It gets people in front of artists' work. Sometimes it results in sales, but not often."
During December's First Friday ArtWalk, last week, Verzosa did make a sale.
Lillian Nayder and Matt Johnson, a married couple from New Gloucester, bought a painting by John Blatchford, who also lives in New Gloucester.
Nayder and her husband made their purchase spontaneously. They didn't come to Aucocisco with the idea of buying art, she said.
"This is our Christmas gift to each other," said Nayder. "I'd rather have that than an espresso machine."
'VERY BEST PARTS OF PORTLAND'
Kristen Honey ducked into Aucocisco that night, shook off the rain and proceeded to greet one friend after another. Her evening plans involved seeing art, meeting friends, grabbing dinner and then maybe a drink.
The art walk provides the perfect opportunity to take advantage of everything great about Portland, said Honey, 38.
"I think the art walk exhibits some of the very best parts of Portland. It's a snapshot of what Portland is really all about: art, food, culture and beer," she said.
Over the course of the year, tens of thousands of people participate in the art walk. Because the event is free, there is no way to accurately count the people. Daniel Fuller, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, has counted as many as 7,000 on a Friday.
The Portland Museum of Art, which has offered free admission on Friday nights since before the art walk began, drew a total of 40,000 people on Fridays in 2011, including the art-walk Fridays. The highest number on a Friday night was 3,500, said museum director Mark Bessire.
Last week, 2,539 people entered the museum between 5 and 9 p.m.
There is talk of making the art walk even bigger by adding events at Congress Square and Monument Square -- ice sculptures in the winter or circus-like performers in the summer, for example.
Talk of such events makes some gallery owners cringe. They fear it would detract even further from the original intent.
The growing pains associated with the art walk are a natural part of its evolution, said Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Creative Portland.
Even among those who worry that it's become too big or too diverse, it's hard to find many people who find it objectionable.
"It is spot-on with regard to Portland's image and identity as an arts-friendly city that is open and accessible, down-home and edgy," Hutchins said. "And perhaps most remarkable, everybody likes it. No one at City Hall or the Chamber of Commerce will tell you that the First Friday ArtWalk is a bad thing. Everybody agrees that it's good for Portland."
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:
Tom Kruzshak of Falmouth examines art at the Rose Contemporary gallery during the First Friday ArtWalk. The galleries are often crowded on art walk nights.
Patrons check out the scene inside the Rose Contemporary gallery during the First Friday ArtWalk this month.