Byline: David Crumpler
The difference between downtown Jacksonville 10 years ago and downtown Jacksonville now?
Here's one answer: It didn't have an art walk.
And the city's core could be a quiet, even comatose place.
The First Wednesday Art Walk has become a monthly antidote to that, bringing people downtown by the thousands for an evening of art, music, food and socializing.
This month, Downtown Vision, the nonprofit that produces the event, is celebrating the decadelong effort to promote local artists and revitalize downtown with a "Cheers to 10 Years" theme.
Special presentations, including a champagne toast outside the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, are planned for Wednesday, said Liz Grebe, Downtown Vision's marketing and events coordinator.
However, the group may have a tough time topping the festive mood at last month's Art Walk, she said. October's attendance set a record, according to an estimate by Downtown Vision. Attracted in no small part by the Oktoberfest theme, nearly 12,000 people turned out, which helped keep nightspots in the area hopping well after Art Walk proper began winding down about 9 p.m.
The number may be a reminder that Art Walk isn't strictly about art, but that's OK, said Grebe, who has been managing the event for about a year and a half. It's still good for downtown and the 50 or so venues - about one of every five of which is cultural in nature - that officially take part in it. "We have businesses tell us they pay their rent with one night of Art Walk," she said.
No, not everyone who shows up goes home with a freshly purchased piece of art. But the boost in awareness is invaluable, artists say.
Tony Allegretti, who launched the art walk through Downtown Vision in 2003, put it this way: "You meet the artist, you make a connection. It's about the introduction."
The details of the first Art Walk make it sound rather quaint compared to what it's become.
It involved eight venues, Allegretti said. Most of them were not, in fact, art galleries, but "pop-up galleries" set up inside businesses along Laura Street leading down to the Landing. (Fifteen blocks now make up art walk, Grebe said.)
A lot of wine and cheese was served, and the mood was enhanced by an occasional violinist playing in the background.
Still, the initial effort to promote local artists and revitalize downtown exceeded expectations - Allegretti's, at least. A few hours before the Art Walk was scheduled to begin, he was asked for a crowd estimate at a Downtown Vision board meeting.
He threw out a number: 250.
About 1,000 people showed up that evening, Allegretti said. Maybe the event had a future.
The year before, Allegretti found the model for the downtown Art Walk in Seattle.
"I went to Seattle with a friend to check out their Art Walk, which they'd been doing for 20 years," he said. "I was blown away by it, and it seemed easy to replicate."
Initially, he considered scheduling Art Walk on Fridays or Saturday, but decided that it could end up competing with other events.
The first year, "it rained at every single event," he said. "But I don't think we ever had a crowd of less than 1,000. For what it was, it still thrived."
Allegretti, now director of downtown engagement for JAX Chamber, managed the Art Walk for about two years. Growth, he recalled, "was sort of gradual. But it's been strong for about seven years straight."
Grebe, who mentioned rain as a factor in this year's Art Walks, said the average attendance is now between 6,000 and 7,000.
"I did kind of feel early on that the event and the aura of it was very sustainable," Allegretti said. "It didn't require a ton of infrastructure. It was good for the museum [then the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art] and the retailers. …