A&E Pick of the Week
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The self-proclaimed longest-running established art walk in the nation returned this August after a 16-month pandemic hiatus. For a tradition that loosely traces its origins to the Fat Tuesday carnivals of the late 1970s, the decision marked a special moment for an arts community crushed by pandemic-driven complications. But galleries in the area are quick to acknowledge that the art walks of late aren’t the same as the wall-to-wall versions of First Thursdays past.
Phen Huang, director of the Foster/White Gallery, described the scene as “comfortably busy versus being crowded,” noting that visitors have been mindful to observe social-distancing guidelines. “It’s not quite as chummy,” Huang said. “People are looking forward to seeing people they recognize … While it’s not a stand-around, hang-a-while kind of party, it’s still a place to see familiar faces. I think people have been craving it.”
For Judith Rinehart of J. Rinehart Gallery, who opened her brick-and-mortar mere months before the pandemic, First Thursday art walks have facilitated sorely needed opportunities for in-person interactions. After months of staging virtual talks and events, Rinehart said that the return of physical encounters has yielded new, serendipitous followers and supporters she wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise.
“Personally, I’ve seen a big uptick in folks finding me and knowing I’m here,” Rinehart said. The “engagement has been such that I haven’t had to shut down. I’ve been able to grow my business. In a time when a lot of businesses can’t do that, I feel incredibly grateful.” Rinehart is capitalizing on this upcoming First Thursday’s momentum to open a new exhibition called “Quiet Moments,” which will feature works by Pacific Northwest-based artists Anne Hirondelle, Gala Bent and Ellen George.
Jim Wilcox, who took the helm as director of the Greg Kucera Gallery earlier this year, plans on opening twin exhibitions on Jan. 6 for artists Tim Bavington and Lynne Woods Turner. Wilcox emphasized the value of keeping Pioneer Square’s gallery network strong, saying, “we can count on each other to refer people to other galleries. … Each one of us does better when we help the others.”
Wilcox said that the gallery also got inventive in keeping interest and foot traffic flowing. “We’ve had things tied in to other interests that are bringing people in,” Wilcox said, referring, for example, to the gallery’s current exhibition of select photographs by Imogen Cunningham, who is the subject of a concurrent, posthumous retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum. An exhibition of quilts and etchings by Alabama-based artists Louisiana Bendolph, Loretta Pettway Bennett and Qunnie Pettway have also drawn nontraditional, craft-loving visitors to the gallery.
For long-standing mainstays like the decades-old Stonington Gallery, First Thursday art walks have had a greater impact on reviving the neighborhood’s arts community than it has on generating sales for the business. Jewelia Rosenbaum, the gallery’s director, said that the support of Stonington’s client base, which they sustained through newsletters and other mailings, kept the needle moving throughout the pandemic.
“I would say that even though First Thursdays aren’t as successful or as well-attended as they might have been before, it’s not hurting us,” Rosenbaum said. “Even when we were in full lockdown, because we have [a] direct client connection with people who have followed us, we’ve maintained success through the pandemic. That includes sight-unseen purchasing because of our mailing lists, and regular turnover of our exhibits.”
Greg Kucera, one of the six Pioneer Square art dealers to formally initiate the monthly version of First Thursday, has been working to build an accurate timeline of the event’s history over the better part of two decades, adding that the “memory banks are dying.” The event’s real value, Kucera said, is the extent to which the galleries in Seattle have collaborated with each other for the benefit of the city.
“Fewer people know anything about the early history,” Kucera said in an email. It “began as a once a year Pioneer Square event in the late 1970s when Pioneer Square was the gem of the city. … It’s a really great history unmatched by any other city as far as we know.”