Organizers of art walk worry art has gotten lost

Flagstaff, AZ – Ask folks on the street what brought them out to Art Walk these days and you'll likely hear something like this:

Just all the people, how lively downtown Flagstaff is.

I love all the music. I love how all the shops are ready for you. You know, they have little snacks and stuff.

It's a chance to get together and see people you haven't seen in a long time.

I just go to see people and drink the wine and eat the treats. It's just a lot of fun.

Notice nobody said art there? For many people who attend, it's simply a great party. A chance to see your friends, grab a bite to eat, enjoy the street musicians, and soak in Flagstaff's vibrant downtown. From a quite art walk, it's turned in to a raucous festival that attracts up to 5,000 people. REVELERS often spill out from the overcrowded sidewalks into the street.

The crush is particularly acute during the summer months. That's when the family geared movie series in Heritage Square brings hundreds more people.

Flagstaff retiree John Graham said he's been coming to Art Walk to see art for years, but its changed.

It's crowded and it's not possible to experience the art. I can experience my friends, but we're a little overwhelmed by the crowds.

Graham highlights what has become a heated debate about First Friday Art Walk. Has the event become a victim of its own success? Has the art gotten lost in the crowd?

George Averbeck is Flagstaff glass blower and co-owns Arizona Handmade. He says sometimes the gallery is packed with people shoulder to shoulder. Take one night.

Somebody turned around and this lady hooked a whole shelf with her bag, and everything was flying it's gotten to the point where There's got to be a load. A capacity.

While some galleries have reported strong sales, other believe serious art buyers stay away because they don't want to deal with the crowds, movies, and lack of parking.

Like many gallery owners, Averbeck wonders what can be done to bring the focus back to art. Some think the movie series, known as Movies on the Square, should move to Saturday night to alleviate some of the congestion.

John VanLandingham isn't not entirely opposed to shifting the movies, but he's not sure that would solve the problem. He owns Mix restaurant right off Heritage Square. He's a member of the Downtown Business Alliance, which started the movie series.

In our stores, if we have too many customers, we don't ask customers to leave. We hire more staff. Buy more cash registers. I don't think the answer to having a downtown that is too busy is to ask people to go away. I think it's to put some management on here.

The Business Alliance has partnered with the city to try create a downtown management district to do that just that. The plan could include more parking, police to direct traffic, closed off street for pedestrian traffic. But many gallery owners distrust the plan AND WORRY THAT IT WON'T ADDRESS THEIR CONCERNS.

Jill Devine is the newest gallery owner downtown. She opened Gallery 113 on Birch Street earlier this summer.

This is a pot I love

Devine loves the crowds and festival feel of First Friday, but she also admits it's no longer about art. Her answer? Have another night, maybe a third Thursday, that's just for galleries.

A night that is a gallery walk where we are really marketing towards and trying to attract the art aficionado or the art buyer to come in a say, I like this. This is great and then in a relaxed manner they can come and look at art.

That's exactly what the galleries in Phoenix did when their Art Walk got swamped by growth. Kimber Lanning owns Modified Arts gallery in Phoenix. She says the new Third Friday gallery walk has been a huge success. Her message to Flagstaff gallery owners?

Don't fight a successful event that's great for your city. Everybody should be focused on what's good for the city.

But she said the restaurants and shops that have benefited from Art Walk should do their part, too, and find ways to promote a new gallery night. She said the art galleries led the transformation of Flagstaff's blighted downtown, and their ongoing success is crucial.

In short, she says all the competing interests need to work together. Flagstaff isn't quite there yet. There's no consensus for what will happen at the next year's art walk, but the heated debate continues.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Claudine LoMonaco