Photograph by Megan Erbacher

Arlene Effron, featured artist at Gallery North, gets inspiration from daily life for her clay figures. Here, she is shown during May's First Friday gallery walk kneeling by ‘Bag Lady,’ which was inspired in France when she saw a lady on the sidewalk digging through a bag.

Just outside the door of the Wandering Turtle Art Gallery & Gifts sits a table with refreshments and a smiling young woman to make sure patrons get what they need. Mellow, groovy, jazzlike music greets customers as they walk through the door. Their eyes instantly flood with colorful paintings, pottery, jewelry and more.

Outside, limited parking, crowded sidewalks and people of all ages are signs it's First Friday again in downtown Bloomington.

First Friday is a version of GalleryWalk, which started around 2002, according to Miah Michaelsen, the city of Bloomington's assistant economic and sustainable development director for the arts, when nine downtown galleries came together to coordinate events and exhibit openings to help each other out.

"I think it's a great example of what appear to be competing businesses coming together and promoting each other," Michaelsen says.

The nine galleries include Bellevue Gallery, Gallery North on the Square, The Venue Fine Arts & Gifts, By Hand Gallery, Glorious Moments Fine Art Gallery, The Waldron Galleries & Gallery Shop, Gallery 406, Pictura Gallery and Wandering Turtle Art Gallery & Gifts.

Michaelsen says these events are successful because the galleries haven't lost their individuality by promoting each other. It shows what coordinated cross-promotion can do for the event and downtown.

The Walks' grassroots beginnings

GalleryWalk had three primary organizers -- By Hand Gallery, Wandering Turtle and the Waldron, according to Michaelsen. Two pioneers in the event were Jaime Sweany of Wandering Turtle and Ruth Conway of By Hand.

Gabriel Colman, owner of The Venue Fine Arts & Gifts, located on Grant between Fourth Street and Kirkwood Avenue, explains the difference between GalleryWalk and First Fridays. GalleryWalk is when the galleries in downtown Bloomington coordinate and organize to gain more attention, he says.

"We have particular advertising that we do to bring attention to GalleryWalk dates, as opposed to every First Friday," Colman says. "We have pamphlets and have previously used a shuttle bus to transport people to the galleries. It's an effort on galleries to really try to get attention."

First Fridays are more downtown events as opposed to just-come-see-the-galleries, he says.

B.J. Irvine, director of Bellevue Gallery on Ninth Street inside the Bloomington Playwrights Project, believes there's an advantage to all of the galleries being together and coordinating their downtown businesses. "When any one of us brings more foot traffic to the downtown area, it benefits everyone," she says.

Photograph by Megan Erbacher

Owners of Pictura Gallery, David and Martha Moore, sit on a leather bench inside their gallery. David says they’ve worked hard to make First Fridays events that are fun and interesting.

Irvine believes people who go out to eat are more likely to visit a downtown gallery, and people who visit a downtown gallery are more likely to stop and eat.

GalleryWalk is a bigger event and has six scheduled dates a year. First Friday is, obviously, the first Friday of every month. The galleries are always open late on First Fridays, even if they don't have openings.

"It's an opportunity for people who can't come during the day," explains Linda Knudsen, artist and one of 10 owners of By Hand Gallery inside Fountain Square. "It's a good time to bring your spouse and comment, 'Oh, don't you think that's nice?' she laughs. "It's an easy way to give gift ideas."

Colman says the consistency is important because it draws attention to downtown. People think, "Oh, it's First Friday again, time to visit the galleries."

GalleryWalk growth has been more consistent, steady and quicker than First Fridays, according to Michaelsen. GalleryWalk has become a destination event.

Despite GalleryWalk being a bigger event, Rachel DiGregorio, who manages Wandering Turtle on the north side of the Courthouse Square, enjoys First Fridays because there is an eclectic mix of many different art media.

Irvine says, "The events give all of us more visibility downtown, and people can come at that time and all galleries are open. It benefits the public as well as the galleries, so it's better for all of us."

'Downtown is everyone's backyard'

The benefits of GalleryWalk and First Friday seem never-ending for both the galleries and other downtown businesses.

Michaelsen clarifies that the events give people a reason to come downtown, often bring new people and give downtown another identity. It also benefits tourism because visitors have something to do that involves the whole town. They also provide local artists more opportunities to show and sell their work.

Two people attending First Friday, for the first time, share why they enjoy it.

"We liked the idea of it," says Molly Casey, an IU graduate student. "It's a nice reminder to take time to look at art."

Daniel Student, a Philadelphia visitor, says he enjoys trying new things. "It's a good way to get to know the Bloomington area," he says.

Public art and programming are ways to make sure downtown stays a vital and important part of the community, according to Michaelson.

"We always say downtown is everyone's backyard," she says. "First Fridays and GalleryWalks are more beneficial because they bring more foot traffic downtown. The more people there, the better our community is."

Photograph by Megan Erbacher

First Friday and GalleryWalk events draw crowds to downtown galleries and businesses.

David Moore, owner of Pictura Gallery at Sixth Street and College Avenue, agrees. "It's really how people get to know who you are," he says. "We've worked very hard to make it an event. We want our gallery to be a welcoming, gathering place."

During First Friday and GalleryWalk, most of the galleries have receptions and offer refreshments, and some even have live music.

DiGregorio says Wandering Turtle always has live music, and it's usually a local band. The gallery proactively supports local music. Andy Cobine, a musician for about 20 years, performed with Steve Mascari on First Friday, May 7.

"We played the very first GalleryWalk, when Wandering Turtle was around the corner," musician Cobine proudly says. "So we were sort of the innovators because they were the first gallery to have live music during this event, and everyone else thought it seemed like a good idea, too."

Art lovers can gallery walk anytime

Advertisements to promote GalleryWalk include a colorful, picture-filled brochure that has details on each gallery. Sometimes free promotions are offered and occasionally a shuttle bus to get people to all the galleries.
"I think it's a great example of what appear to be competing businesses coming together and promoting each other." - Miah Michaelsen, City of Bloomington
Kendall Reeves, who owns gallery406 at 406 S. Walnut St., thinks more advertising would help bring larger crowds to GalleryWalk and First Friday. Occasionally other events occur that take away from it. Reeves believes coordination with other events would draw more people to GalleryWalk.

Jeanne Iler, from Gallery North on the Square, sees other events around town as beneficial to GalleryWalk and First Friday.

"A lot of regular people come in, and we get a lot of visitors, especially during something like graduation weekend," Iler says. "That gets more awareness for the store."

Michaelsen says the important thing associated with the GalleryWalk pamphlet is that it promotes the idea that art lovers can go on a GalleryWalk any time of year.

"You need to be a part of the visual arts scene any time of year, not just specific dates," she says.

Megan Erbacher can be reached