When Is an Art Walk Not an Art Walk?

10/07/2010 11:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Every major city with half a central art district has an art walk of some kind. Some are publicly run, some operated by a local organization. They occur monthly, quarterly, and annually. Some include a variety of local businesses as part of the mix, others are gallery only occasions. One may be frequented pretty much by a handful of local denizens, another draws tourists from around the world. But none are like the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk that has taken place on the second Thursday of each month for the last six years in what used to be known as Skid Row. Over 20,000 revelers show up each month. And if you happen to own a gallery in an area that can only wish about attracting that many people, do be careful what you wish for.

Back in 2004 Bert Green, owner of an eponymous gallery he had recently relocated to the unlikely corner of 5th and Main, long known primarily for its alcoholics and homeless, launched this particular Art Walk with a handful of cohorts in art in tow. No one really came. But gradually they did, as over the course of several years art fans from the increasingly gentrified central city and elsewhere, looking for reasons to justify their flight from suburbia, found one. The city noticed and helped out, as did the neighborhood Business Improvement District. More galleries began to pop up, until after several years of effort Green and his colleagues were drawing a few thousand souls to sample their offerings.

True to a process that has played out in many other cities for just about forever, new businesses sailed in, catering to the thirst and whims of a growing audience with some money in their pockets out to enjoy themselves. The chemistry and moment arrived, and to the consternation of the original band of pranksters an evening that miraculously attracted a few thousand drew ten, then fifteen, and suddenly twenty thousand or more. Art fans gave way to revelers, and as the evenings became bacchanals the gallery people became less and less merry. The original audience of friends and supporters melted away into that good night, leading all too many for whom the Art Walk is named to agree: the Downtown Art Walk was an event all right, but no one was there for the art.

Fascinating how success is not necessarily commensurate with happy endings; the theme is rife in literature. The galleries are laying plans to reinvent their Art Walk early next year so that it becomes, well, an Art Walk again. There is a narrative tale to this worthy of a feature film, or at least a soap opera. The L.A. Times deemed it salacious enough to warrant a Page One feature (below the fold, still quite a rarity for an art story to be rated front page news by their estimable editors).

But it is not my purpose to recount the details, or distinguish the heroes from the bad players. No, it is simpler than that. The arc of the story is really what is most illuminating. Creative individuals make a difference to communities, launching initiatives that are galvanizing. The growing participation of many are beyond the control of the few. Original intentions take unpredictable twists and turns. But just as the train apparently goes off the tracks, creative vision and purpose driven determination translate into recovery. The players are there, right there in Downtown Los Angeles to accomplish that, and I think they will. And there are some small number among you in other locations who have or will start your own engines of change. Remember that it will not be easy, there will be setbacks in the very midst of the most exhilarating breakthroughs. Keep your focus on the creative integrity of art. It'll be OK.