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Art Walk is Dead, Long Live Art Walk

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, September 29, 2010, at 09:23AM
Art Walk Crown Photo Illustration by Ed Fuentes

When it comes to bringing attention and visitors to Downtown Los Angeles, the Downtown Art Walk is in rarified company. Staples Center and nightlife maven Cedd Moses could certainly make their claims, but one could fairly argue that the monthly event has done more to change the perception of a night out in Downtown than any other venue or event. On any given Art Walk Thursday in 2010, one could expect to see 20,000 participants wandering the streets of the Historic Core, reveling in the night’s energy and events.

In that context it is easy to see why many in the community were up in arms last Friday afternoon when Jay Lopez, Executive Director of the non-profit set up to run the Art Walk, sent out a release saying that the event was “ceasing all event operations until January 2011” and would be returning as a daytime, gallery-focused affair.

While it now seems that the October Art Walk will continue as planned on the 14th — though without Lopez at the helm — weak organization and significant challenges related to the event’s growth make it unclear how the event will move forward and who will be running it if it does. At the same time, Lopez is moving forward on a pair of events that continue pieces of the Art Walk’s aims.

GROWTH OF AN EVENT

The first Downtown Art Walk took place on September 9, 2004, with eight galleries participating. The event was the brainchild of gallery owner Bert Green, who had moved his Bert Green Fine Arts to the corner of 5th and Main earlier in the year.

The first event was tiny, attracting less than 100 people. It quickly grew, though, and six months later Green told the L.A. Times that his gallery was seeing approximately 200 visitors each walk.

When Green decided to hand over the reins after four and a half years, those numbers had climbed into the thousands, but the night had also hit growing pains. In the Spring of 2009 LAPD for the first time cracked down on unpermitted art and craft vending taking place on the sidewalks. In March, art supply store Raw Materials had its front window broken out by a drunken shoplifter.

New director Richard Schave created the event’s first real structure, registering the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk as a California public benefit corporation in June of 2009. While Schave’s tenure as head of the event did not last long — he resigned five months later — the structure he created lives on.

Lopez was picked as the non-profit’s second director in December of 2009, a time when the event was attracting 10,000 participants monthly.

His tenure now proves to be similarly short-lived. A Sunday release by the non-profit board called Lopez the event’s “former director.”

SUCCESS CREATES CHALLENGES

The Art Walk’s explosive growth has left it straining against that organic structure as those involved try to figure out who should be paying for services such as trash and security.

Because the Art Walk takes place on Spring and Main, cleanup after the event has largely been left to the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), an entity funded by an assessment on neighborhood property owners. That was ok when the Art Walk was small, said BID Executive Director Russell Brown. “Back then, instead of our normal five people in the evening, we would have eight people in the evening,” he explained. These days, the BID requires a staff of 25 to manage logistics on Art Walk night.

This summer, the BID presented the Art Walk non-profit with a bill for its services. “After months and months and months of saying ‘these are the costs, this is what we’re doing,’ we actually just put it in writing,” Brown said.

The BID isn’t the only group looking to see costs reimbursed. To maintain order as crowds grew, LAPD has also played an increasingly large role in the event. Reserve and off-duty officers have been volunteering their time to show up to the event, but the department is now looking to the non-profit to cover policing costs for the event. Current discussions would have the department supplying 16 officers each month at a cost of just over $7,000 per event.

The night’s boisterous atmosphere has also brought it into increasing conflict with neighborhood residents who chafe at the noise generated by the night’s many bands and DJs. Some long-time residents of the Historic Core now avoid the night and its scene rather than stay to enjoy it.

WHO CONTROLS ART WALK?

Sunday’s release also said that the board is “currently engaged in discussion of potential changes and improvements.” While it did not lay out what those options might be, commenters on the initial announcement questioned how any one group could control the fate of an event that has become so strongly associated with life in the Historic Core.

There are signs that the non-profit board has been questioning its own usefulness. Multiple sources told blogdowntown that the board had chosen earlier this month to dissolve itself. While board member and press representative Wicks Walker would not confirm that on Tuesday, he said that the body was considering many options. “Our agenda is to juggle everybody’s interests, and to try to preserve the good that’s coming out of this thing,” he said. “To that end, whatever structure, whatever budget, whatever organizational plan is best to preserve that is what we’ll do.”

Walker said that it was too early to know exactly what costs the non-profit would be responsible for in keeping the event going, but that he believes the funds are out there. “The overwhelming response from everybody is that we want to find a way to keep this going,” he said.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Among business owners, though, opinions of the Art Walk seem split.

Furniture store (Sub)Urban opened last year in the heart of Art Walk at 5th and Main. Owner Ronnie Gene said Monday that “part of my business plan is built around Art Walk.” While Art Walk attendees may not buy much on the night of event, Gene said that the event has been an important piece of creating awareness for the store.

Jonny Cota of avant-garde boutique Skingraft tells a similar story. “[Art Walk night is] a headache,” he says, “but the week after Art Walk is always the best of the month” for sales.

Old Bank DVD was an early Art Walk participant, but co-owner Erik Loysen said the store stopped providing wine and cheese during the event three years ago. “People came in to eat dinner,” he said. While the store is wary of signing people up during Art Walk night since many attendees are from out of the area, he does believe that the event has a long-term benefit for his store as people are surprised to see a DVD store in the area.

That’s not the case for all business categories. Startup restaurants and bars have long counted on the Art Walk to make their monthly rent.

FINDING SOLUTIONS

Developer Tom Gilmore thinks it is important to keep Art Walk intact because of the way it shows Downtown’s potential. “When it is at its best, Art Walk provides an unbelievable opportunity to see what Downtown is capable of in the coming years,” he said.

Still, he said that it is important to work with all involved to set a structure for the event. “The crowd ultimately conforms to the format you put in place,” he said. “If you focus it as a party, it’ll become a party.”

In a meeting with property owners that will take place after this issue goes to press, Gilmore plans to suggest some ground rules dealing with music on the sidewalks and alcohol served in galleries and events.

He feels that property owners are going to need to play a more direct role in funding the event.

UP IN THE AIR

As of press time on Tuesday evening, the downtownartwalk.com website still shows Lopez’s 149-word announcement about the cancellation of the 2010 events. Walker said Tuesday that the board is still attempting to get access information from Lopez to change the site back and restore its content.

He said that the board is meeting with stakeholders throughout the week as the event’s future is decided.

As for Lopez, he says the weekend’s controversy does not change his vision for the weekend Art Walk. He is proceeding with the plans he announced on Friday to reshape the Art Walk into a quarterly event that would take place on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6pm. He said that it is important that the Art Walk remain about the galleries, and that the new structure will make that happen.

He also hopes to launch a new event called Off Broadway, bringing performing arts, theatre and cinema to venues on and around Broadway at free or low cost.

That event, which he hopes to launch in December, would take place on the familiar second Thursday of each month.

A few days back it looked like that might be a quiet night. Now it might just be one with a little extra going on.

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