Artwalk keys downtown Birmingham revitalization

Artwalk keys downtown Birmingham revitalization
The cobblestoned street of Morris Avenue provides an inviting setting for Artwalk, now in its 15th year. (Arik Sokol)

Take a walk along the streets of Birmingham and it is evident the revitalization of downtown is well underway – contagious, even.

In barely a decade, city blocks that were empty are filled with restaurants, shops and thriving businesses. Streets once barren after the workday are now bustling with patrons at night.

But how has downtown made such a transformation in such a short time? It has involved a lot of work and passion by residents, business owners, nonprofits and civic organizations – and Artwalk has been one of the strongest advocates.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary Sept. 9-10, Artwalk is a free, treasured weekend event whose presence has made a lasting impact on the city’s revitalization.

In 2002, Naked Art Gallery owner Veronique Vanblaere and others, along with organizations like Operation New Birmingham (now REV Birmingham), set out to create something to bring people downtown and bring support to the art community. They chose a district on the north side for its studios, lofts and abandoned spaces that could showcase art and the area’s potential, said Joy Myers, executive director of Artwalk.

Artwalk takes place on the streets and in the businesses of Birmingham's Morris Avenue and First and Second Avenues North. Some businesses pair with the same artists year after year. (Arik Sokol)
Artwalk takes place on the streets and in the businesses of Birmingham’s Morris Avenue and First and Second Avenues North. Some businesses pair with the same artists year after year. (Arik Sokol)

Stretching along the historic cobblestone street Morris Avenue and First and Second Avenues North, the inaugural event featured 25 artists and attracted about 1,000 people. The Artwalk team worked hard to attract bigger crowds with parades, drumlines and similar spectacles.

“We wanted people to see the potential of this neighborhood – to provide an atmosphere of bustling sidewalks, activity, crowded streets,” said Myers.

Emphasizing fun

Myers was a volunteer for the inaugural Artwalk and later became the communications director.

“This event is unique in that it puts a fun twist on the art show,” Myers said. “The atmosphere transforms throughout the weekend.”

Artwalk aims to be fun and includes as many types of art as possible, including performance arts. (Arik Sokol)
Artwalk aims to be fun and includes many types of art, including performance arts. (Arik Sokol)

At Artwalk’s inception, the only similar art show was spaced across much of Birmingham and was not walkable.

Accessibility and a fun atmosphere are at the heart of Artwalk, and the attendance now reflects those attributes.

In the spring each year, Myers and her team of volunteers recruit artists to submit samples of their work, which are reviewed by a panel of judges. The show has grown to include 120 artists, mainly from Birmingham but extending across the South, who helped attract 15,000 people last year. Alabama Power employees are among the annual volunteers.

To show their work, artists are paired with host businesses along the event streets that offer their spaces for the weekend. Myers is proud to note that many artists and hosts request to be paired year after year, strengthening the sense of community.

“We have grown so much that we have exceeded the number of spaces available,” Myers said. “We now even block off parking lots and set up areas with tents for artists to show. It is amazing to see the growth.”

Artwalk’s atmosphere resembles a big block party, attracting a high-energy crowd that enjoys free live entertainment, block upon block of artists and restaurants, bars and vendors offering food and drink.

“Birmingham looks like a normal Friday night in New York City,” said Myers. “Friday is more of a party feel and the Saturday event is family friendly, enabling us to reach multiple types of crowds.”

A new way to see Birmingham

Artwalk will open earlier this year on Saturday to attract early risers who often go to the Pepper Place farmers’ market, a few miles from the loft district. There are also many activities for children.

Joy Myers, executive director of Artwalk, says she bought her first real piece of art at the event in its early years. (Arik Sokol)
Joy Myers, executive director of Artwalk, says she bought her first real piece of art at the event in its early years. (Arik Sokol)

“We know that each year people who are new to the city or are new to the potential of downtown come to Artwalk and get to experience Birmingham in a new way. We are always looking for ways for our event to accommodate many types of people,” Myers said.

Moreover, Artwalk focuses on promoting many types of art, including visual, performance and musical.

“It all happens pretty organically. We find our artists, musicians and community members stepping in with their creativity throughout the weekend,” Myers said.

Since its early days, Artwalk organizers have made a point to feature local bands and have even set the trend for budding artists’ success. But the evolution of the event relies on accessibility.

“We have artists selling at many different price points for a reason: We want to make art less intimidating and our artists are at all different stages in their careers,” Myers said. “We want to be able to provide an atmosphere for even early art collectors to see art as accessible. I bought my first real piece of art at Artwalk years ago.”

The loft district is reaping the rewards, in part through new bars and restaurants that festival attendees are able to enjoy throughout the event.

“I think business owners and patrons really woke up to the potential in this area, and one of those ways was through Artwalk and being able to envision the crowds. It’s an exciting thing,” Myers said.

“This loft area has really developed, and it is so affirming to see that Artwalk has had a role in that,” she said. “We see the event as preserving the historic value of our city, as a small footprint in a downtown resurgence.”

Learn more about the event at http://www.birminghamartwalk.org/.

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