December 21, 2012

Portland's art walk veering off course?

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Portland's First Friday ArtWalk may have become a victim of its own success.

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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.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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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.

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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?"


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Patrons check out the scene inside the Rose Contemporary gallery during the First Friday ArtWalk this month.


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