Birmingham’s Artwalk Turns 10 This Weekend

When Birmingham’s Artwalk began 10 years ago to draw people to the downtown Loft District and celebrate art there, there wasn’t a whole lot of “there” there. What a difference a decade makes.

Ten years ago, there was no Steele Lounge, no Wine Loft, no Matthews Bar and Grill on First Avenue North, and certainly no Metro Bistro, Pale Eddie’s Pour House, no What’s On Second?, on Second Avenue North.

You literally had to draw a picture – I mean, like, architectural drawings – to make people see the potential for urban living in long-vacant downtown buildings. Visionary developers believed Birmingham was ripe for the types of loft conversions that trendy cities were already doing in their old downtown buildings. There were relatively few lofts 10 years ago – a couple of buildings around 22nd Street North, along First Avenue, on Morris Avenue and some smaller, tucked away places that most people assumed were empty.

But a decade ago, there was Veronique Vanblaere and her little artsy store, Naked Art, on First Avenue North on the ground floor of one of those vacant buildings. She had the cool idea of using art and the novelty of the existing lofts as a self-marketing tool to get folks to see and celebrate Downtown Birmingham – and make few sales of art and real estate as well. Thus began Birmingham’s Artwalk.

Each year Artwalk grew, even without Vanblaere as its chief cheerleader and organizer. Artwalk became an official entity, with its own board of directors and executive director. This group of progressive young professionals created a budget, found sponsors and rallied a troop of committed volunteers for the event.  They envisioned, planned and executed the annual street arts fair on a shoestring budget.

Every year, they worked out the kinks to make the next year better.  Organized volunteers showed up to set up tents for vendors, stages for musicians, and exhibit spaces for artists in those few loft buildings,  businesses and some still-vacant venues in the Loft District over the years.

Every year for 10 years, Artwalk came. And so did the crowd of art lovers who came to peruse and buy art. Others came to soak up the urban-living atmosphere and just hang out with friends for a good time. Even in these lean economic times, these organizers continued to make Artwalk a must-do annual arts event, on the first weekend after Labor Day.

And now, thanks to those organizers and their generous sponsors, Birmingham’s Artwalk returns in 2011 for its 10th year.

Some of those formerly vacant art exhibit spaces are now lofts. I remember in 2005 when developers were converting the “Spice Building” (officially known as the A.C. Legg Spice Company). “What about those spicy smells? Would people be willing to risk spending up to $175,000 for one of the spaces?” people wondered. The A.C. Legg Lofts were among the newer lofts constructed on First Avenue North five years ago. The folks who bought then are smiling very broadly these days.

In fact, the Spice building was at the beginning of what I called “the loft explosion” in 2005. But, due to the housing market collapse, it was more like the loft soft expansion.

First Avenue North and Morris were supposed to be the center of the Loft District. But market dictates put the district’s main street on Second Avenue North, thanks in part to architect Jeremy Erdreich’s retrofit of a corner building that he turned into lease-to-own office space. New businesses moved into the area, including the Urban Standard and Rogue Tavern eateries, Faith Skate Supply and Charm jewelry store, adding to existing businesses such as the Waldrep Stewart and Kendrick law firm (it was Whatley and Drake before that), Travel Scene Tours and the Space One Eleven gallery and studio.

So Second Avenue is now where you will find most of the Artwalk action, in addition to Morris Avenue (see the site map here).

More than 125 local and regional artists – painters, photographers, sculptors, jewelry designers, potters and others – will set up their wares in more than 40 businesses and lofts, starting today and Saturday. Artwalk will also continue highlighting local musicians and performance artists in not one, but now two locations along Morris Avenue.

But the biggest news of all? The after-party at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, which was exclusively for volunteers as a thank-you for their tireless work, will be open to the public. For a $5 admission fee and the purchase of food and libations that support Artwalk and the historic venue, you too can party like a rock star, as I did one year. My legs are sore just thinking about all the dancing I did a few years back. And yes, I did help get the party started! (Once DJ Coco started with the Michael Jackson mixes, it was on!)

Artwalk features good local music, great art in funky urban spaces, a creative spot for the children in the KidZone, and plenty of businesses waiting to serve families and adults later in the evening – what’s there not to love about one of the best things going in Birmingham?

We truly have a great community event in Birmingham’s Artwalk, one that the region’s diverse citizenry and out-of-town visitors can all enjoy equally. Here’s wishing – and working – for another decade of Artwalk.

Details:

See more of what’s happening at Artwalk 2011 here on this message flier here, http://www.birminghamartwalk.org/email/email-09-02-2011.html, or visit the full website here.

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