Welcome Pioneer Square, the birthplace of Seattle, and the city’s “first neighborhood”. Pioneer Square is a rich in history and known especially for its architecture. Since the early 1960s, Pioneer Square’s Victorian storefronts and dusty uppers lofts have provided a safe haven for galleries and artists. But is their artistic community, once the center of Seattle’s art scene, still being supported as it once was by its modern day governing Pioneers?
In 1981 a group of Pioneer Square art dealers (Seattle Art Dealers Association) printed handout maps, did small-scale promotions, and on the first Thursday of the month painted footprints on the sidewalk outside their galleries. First Thursday soon evolved into a beloved fixture on the local arts calendar. Those handouts grew into a community guide, which still survives to this day.
Sam Davidson of Davidson Galleries, one of the core group of galleries who launched the guide and the art walk recalls, “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.”
Today, the event is hosted by PioneerSquare.ORG, a group of local business and investors with a stake in developing the area. Their host website reads, “First Thursday takes place each month in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood when leading art galleries throw open their doors to introduce their new exhibitions and artists, enhanced by the dozens of public art installations that can be found when walking between galleries. From the historic Native American Totem Poles in Occidental and Pioneer Square parks to the bright red “Sentinels” on guard outside the new Fire Station 10….”, but that’s it.
Besides its euphoric “about us”…the website for Pioneer Square is barren, missing its gallery information, has a gaudy-unaesthetic-appearance, dead-end links, and not an art piece in site. However, their social media is current with everything happening in the Square, from new eateries, farmer’s market promotions, parking information, new town improvements, and an occasional shout out for an outside sponsored event. Their Facebook fan page which host just short of 4000 “likes”, does post an occasional gallery participant, and make an event page each month for any and all who may want to take part in the Art Walk event – yet the event page list only 66 pledged to attend. Seattle Weekly, and local media plays its part to keep hope alive with its own rendition of the Art Fair, mentioning its history as told from a long standing gallery participant of the Square in a recent article.
The article reads of the rise and fall of the event into a different demographic of younger attendees less concerned with buying art than having a good time. Beginning with a free-loving time of wine-and-cheese ambiance which certainly helped the attendance of the ArtWalk, only to be squashed like a grape when the city’s liquor control board eventually cracked down, resulting in the prohibition of free booze being carried from gallery to gallery in a neighborhood known for having more than its fair share of “homeless street drunks”.
Oops…Did someone say homeless street drunks? Pioneer Square’s ArtWalk is situated in a town known for its chronic homeless population, topped off with the Mardi Gras riot of 2001, and the Great Recession which killed plans to gentrify the town in the past, the ArtWalk has had its fair share of drama. But due to increased ArtWalk interest and population, rents did go up, as veteran galleries who were more established held tight, others closed leaving them and the newer TK Building galleries left to tend to emerging talents.
“I think the whole art scene has changed,” says Davidson in an interview with Seattle Weekly. Perhaps the Square is waiting for a new generation of First Thursday art collectors… these techies are like unicorns—rarely spied in the forest.”
T0 coincide with signs of Pioneer Square’s continuing revival; plans announced for the new Good Arts LLC Art Hub, the erecting of new apartment houses, several new bars, and hip nearby eateries. Still there is a fear that once Pioneer Square becomes desirable largely in part because of the galleries and artists of the ArtWalk, more art galleries and long time residents will inevitably be squeezed out.
Remember the days of the independent artisans of Occidental Park? We’ll outside artisans now have to find a sponsoring location if they want to be included in official promotions for the First Thursday ArtWalk, with PioneerSquare.ORG now stating that all studio, gallery, or venue locations must be located within the Pioneer Square Historic District boundaries to receive their promotions. Bringing up the question again..what promo?
Regardless whether or not the artists will disappear in Pioneer Square they are still much a part of the towns rejuvenation and history, need the city’s constant PR and show of support. This may be a job for #artwalkmatters, the same team who recently put pressure on the main PR Firm handling the Downtown Art Walk, the Downtown Los Angeles ArtWalk non profit, who had been noticeably neglecting the promotion of their gallery participants, independent artisans and other event coordinators in support of the arts, for months, focusing their promotion efforts mostly on their own board members and company sponsors.
Keri Freeman host of the Downtown Los Angeles ArtWalk’s largest event of the night, had no reservations when describing the Boards neglect while offering suggestions to anyone who would listen, in an effort to make the Downtown Los Angeles ArtWalk Board/PR firm, “get the lead out”, stating, “ArtWalk helped build the Downtown community and gave everyone a reason for being here. We too have a huge population of homeless people, and there is no reason why we can’t devote some of the energy and monies generated from the Downtown ArtWalk to helping the less fortune members of our community, not to mention promoting the artists and remainder galleries responsible for the initial spark that renovated our town. This should be done on a regular basis, and with great vigor, especially with all the resources they (ArtWalk Board) has at their disposal. Now that things have changed for the better, the artists still need to be supported, with safe places to set up, porto-potties, proper lighting, and lower vendor fees and genuine PR effort”.
So what is happening in Seattle? Are there any galleries or sponsoring businesses left? See for yourself, the Seattle Artwalk is free & self-guided, every month from 6 pm to 8 pm.