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Business of the Arts: In Step with the Arts

First Friday connects city and cultural community

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After nearly a quarter century of operation in downtown Springfield, First Friday Art Walk is an event the city’s residents can almost set their watches by.

On the first Friday of each month, downtown galleries and other businesses invite the public to stop in and experience displays and performances by local artists. Wine and cheese are frequently served, and a thrum of conversation and music set the mood.

During the most recent installment on July 7, golden light from participating venues pooled in the rain puddles outside, and through slitted eyelids, Springfield may have looked a little like an impressionist painting.

One person making her monthly sojourn among galleries was Meganne Rosen, who teaches art at Ozarks Technical Community College.

Rosen never misses an Art Walk, and this one was no exception. She started with “Unfolding the Map,” a solo exhibition by artist Sharon Harper at Missouri State University’s Brick City Gallery. Then it was across Boonville Avenue to the Carolla Arts Exhibition Center for “The Figure, Reclaimed,” an exploration of the female form.

She and her companions finished the night at Obelisk Home for a duo exhibition by Jared Gillett and Jane Troup – dissimilar artists whose work Rosen said came together in a surprising and satisfying way.

“It was really one of the better Art Walks I’ve been to in a while,” she said. “All the work was so strong.”

Artistic vibe
Leslie Forrester, executive director of the Springfield Regional Arts Council Inc., which coordinates Art Walk, said there is a remarkable energy that happens in the city at the start of each month.

“On First Friday Art Walk evenings, there’s nothing better than strolling down Walnut Street and seeing folks out and about with music coming out of the galleries,” she said. “Everything really comes alive.”

July’s Art Walk had 14 participating members – that is, downtown galleries or businesses that purchased memberships in the Art Walk and mounted exhibitions or held performances – or featured a combination. Out of these, 13 showed visual art, five had live performances and three included artists creating work on-site, according to Exhibitions Manager Claire Utley, who coordinates the event for SRAC.

Forrester said a goal of the event is to get people into partner organizations downtown. These include traditional galleries, as well as retailers, restaurants and nonprofits. July’s event featured visual art at the Park Central Branch Library, Hotel Vandivort, BookMarx, J.L. Long Traders and Transformation Gallery and Tattoo. Singer-songwriter Barak Hill performed at Hold Fast Brewing.

“There are always artists looking for opportunities to showcase their work and get in front of an audience,” Forrester said. “Developing energy around such a central force is a great opportunity for them.”

The energy is soon to be boosted by increased financial support from the city of Springfield, following local voters’ decision to apply 4.5% of the city’s 5% lodging tax to arts and culture through SRAC. Forrester said the organization will receive its first tax payment this month, and it is estimated SRAC will bring in $315,000 this year.

“That’s $215,000 more than we’ve ever gotten,” Forrester said.

She noted the majority of the additional funding will go right back out into the arts community, including 80% or more to be dedicated to grantmaking.

How to join
Utley said there are many on-ramps for people who want to participate in Art Walk, whether as a partner or a sponsor.

Prospective partners pay a $100 annual onboarding fee plus membership costs for tiers priced at $300, $480 and $600 a year. A venue can instead choose to register as a one-time exhibitor for $125.

The lowest tier, the $300 level, allows organizations to participate up to four months per year with an exhibition or performance, while mid-level partners may participate up to eight months, and  partners at the highest tier may participate every month.

Forrester said all proceeds go back into the Art Walk program, including event promotion and staff costs.

Utley said it is not necessary to be an expert gallerist to participate.

“We’ll help you figure out what’s going to work best in your space,” she said. “If you have a vision, we can help you break it down to execute it.”

Utley added that business owners or gallerists select artists and set up the event. Artist recommendations and advice are available from SRAC, but while the happenings are centrally promoted, they are not centrally controlled.

Showings and performances run generally 5-10 p.m., though exact times vary by venue, and are drop-in events – no reservations needed.

“There’s this outdated notion that you see portrayed in the media where art galleries are exclusive,” Utley said. “That’s most definitely not the case. Art galleries are for everyone.”

It’s all downtown
There doesn’t seem to be a written history of Art Walk, and for those who have never coordinated an arts event, it may seem to have bubbled up organically.

It didn’t.

Nathan Falter of Springfield Pottery remembers helping to establish Art Walk about 24 years ago. He said he worked with other artists – his wife Jennifer Falter, Jan Hyde, Randy Bacon and Shannon Bacon – plus Kay Logsdon of SRAC.

Falter said Art Walk was not an original idea but something he and Jennifer had experienced while living in Philadelphia and that also existed in other cities. When they started, Art Walk was one of the few things going on downtown, and it was primarily visual art. Falter said he has enjoyed seeing it grow and change over the years.

A lot is happening downtown today, according to Downtown Springfield Association’s Executive Director Rusty Worley, and Art Walk is a big part of that, though attendance figures are not tracked.

“It’s an important part of the calendar each month,” he said. “It’s obviously a big day each month for our galleries, offering a chance for them to show off new contributors and artists. It’s also a chance for patrons to get a feel for what’s new downtown. Our scene changes so rapidly with new businesses and new public art, and this is a chance for people to experience it.”

Art Walk was one of the core elements when downtown was being revitalized 20 years ago, Worley said.

Laura Ingalsbe, co-owner of Formed: An Artist Collective, said things are always changing inside her gallery, where art sells for $25 to $10,000.

At the July event, two members of the ensemble Bold Deniers played harp and violin in the window while visitors milled about, a cooler on the floor offering free refreshments. Featured artists for the gallery’s half-birthday celebration were Andi Snethern, Alicia Mau, Janelle Patterson and Misty Lane.

Ingalsbe said visitors start showing a special interest the day before Art Walk, stopping in for a preview of the show, and the momentum lasts for a week afterward, starting with Saturday sales to people who came in Friday but didn’t want to carry purchases from shop to shop.

“Most people go get at least a drink somewhere or they grab something to eat. There are lots and lots of fun things for them to do downtown, which is nice,” she said.

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