How the Longest-Running Art Walk in the Country Got Its Start

As told by those who started it.

First Thursday Art Walk was voted Best Event Series in the 2015 Best of Seattle Reader Poll. To view the other winners, go here.

A baker’s dozen galleries in the city’s most densely art-infested district sponsor a peripatetic candlelight celebration. Park free at the Kingdome.”

So it began, on February 27, 1980. Having cranked out 10,000 SW calendar blurbs myself, I can understand why Tim Appelo—20 years before he would become my colleague—only gave the event a 20-word listing. The first Pioneer Square gallery walk didn’t sound that promising. Yet by February ’82 my good buddy Tim wrote a positive and very amusing feature on the third annual art walk, which its organizers had originally pegged to the Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) celebration. (Pioneer Square merchants hoped the latter would revive their chronically depressed historic neighborhood.) Later in ’82 the art walk became a monthly event that settled upon the name by which we know it today: the First Thursday Art Walk, generally considered the oldest such event in the country, and voted Best Event Series in our BOS Reader Poll.

The gallery owners who’d eventually become known as the Seattle Art Dealers Association began by publishing a walking map and guide in ’79, which in the following decade grew into a monthly color publication, now augmented by its website (seattleartdealers.com). The small initial group of galleries that populated the guide and art walk, recalls gallery owner Greg Kucera, “had footsteps painted on the sidewalk, leading from gallery to gallery.”

Appelo’s write-up from March ’82 confirms those “queer orange footprints,” which he duly followed. He wrote, “Hordes of the wandering well-to-do had dispersed most of the derelicts. It was a march: Aesthetes Take Back the Night.” It was also a Friday, since the whole First Thursday thing wouldn’t be worked out for a while.

A sense of occasion was necessary to draw visitors to Pioneer Square, recalls Sam Davidson of Davidson Galleries, one of the core group of gallerists who launched the guide and art walk. “It was a really nice event and focused on the art. It was really strong, a commercial success. It gave people a sense that there was something going on. People did take advantage of the bars and restaurants. Parking wasn’t as challenging in them days.”

To Kucera, who recalls that “Linda Hodges and I both opened in ’83,” the art walk validated the presence of so many galleries around Pioneer Square, many of them now closed. Most prominent was perhaps Linda Farris Gallery, whose owner (now deceased) had a knack for publicity. Appelo wrote that her March ’82 show included “a convocation of eccentrics that would give SoHo pause.” Says Kucera of the art walk, “It became very quickly something that everyone was a part of. All those questions about whether galleries would move out of Pioneer Square stopped being asked. “Linda [Farris] entirely took credit.”

The SADA guide also grew to include galleries beyond downtown, like the now-closed Francine Seders Gallery and Prographica. “It started out as a Pioneer Square exhibition guide,” says Kucera. “When we started it, it was seven galleries. There were times when there weren’t enough decent galleries to go in it. There’s no other publication in the city with such history. It’s hugely popular. It’ll be a long time before we go out of print. We have beat time.” Current circulation is about 14,000, down from a peak of 21,000.

By the mid-’80s, the SADA guide and First Thursday event were booming. Interlopers began crashing Occidental Square to busk or hawk T-shirts, introducing a different demographic—less concerned with buying art than having a good time.

“We were going through, like, 12 cases of wine an evening,” recalls Davidson, “and the same people were standing by the wine table every month.” The wine-and-cheese ambience certainly helped the art walk, but the city’s liquor control board eventually cracked down. And, arguably, that prohibition on free booze—sometimes carried from gallery to gallery—was probably inevitable in a neighborhood with so many street drunks.

Besides Pioneer Square’s chronic homeless population, shelters, soup kitchens, and panhandlers, the past three decades have seen rowdy, drunken sports fans, the Mardi Gras riot and dot-com bust of 2001, the Great Recession (which killed plans to fill the Smith Tower with condo residents), and now the endless Bertha/waterfront rebuild. “We’re just a dumping ground for the city,” says Kucera.

Davidson is more sanguine. “People have always been concerned about safety in Pioneer Square,” he says. His gallery, like most, has moved from location to location—chasing good rents.

Today, since the Tashiro Kaplan Building opened in 2004, the art walk has more demographic variety among galleries—not all of whom advertise in the SADA guide, but still enjoy the First Thursday halo. Among the older, founding galleries, Kucera concedes, “We’re an aging demo.” His artists are more established and expensive to own, while the TK Building’s galleries tend toward younger, emerging talents. “I think the whole art scene has changed,” says Davidson, who’s dropped large sculpture in favor of prints and other works that are easier to move and hang in new condos (or, for some of his long-time clients, retirement homes).

Kucera, who owns his space, is also waiting for a new generation of First Thursday art collectors. “These techies are like unicorns—rarely spied in the forest,” he says ruefully. Davidson meanwhile points to signs of Pioneer Square’s revival: a new apartment complex south of King Street, several new bars, and Matt Dillon’s hip nearby eateries. “That’s an open question,” he says, “whether we can corral those people, to get ’em to crack the door.”

If/when the tunnel’s drilled and the viaduct’s down, says Davidson, “Pioneer Square will again be very desirable”—in large part because of the galleries and art walk. But then, he sighs, “That will squeeze us out.”

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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