Seven of the original artists, store owners and supporters reflect on the 25-year anniversary of the First Friday Art Walk in Gulfport and agree the beginning was socially a watershed moment.
Technically, the anniversary of the original First Friday Art Walk was on November 2, 2018 but heavy rain and high winds kept the Beach Boulevard street vendors and their tents away for safety reasons while storefront galleries and businesses remained open. At the third Saturday Art Walk, a second day each month that is a modern addition, artistic street vendors returned on November 17. Promotional materials encouraged people to make November the anniversary month.
What has Art Walk meant to Gulfport’s art scene over the past 25 years?
In the Beginning
“We moved to town in 1990. It took several years to realize that Gulfport would actually be a nascent area for a street of arts and it turned out to be much more than that in the long run,” said Michael O’Toole, whose partner was Roger Turner, a glass-blowing artist. O’Toole describes himself as a support person who is outgoing and likes to talk to people.
Turner and O’Toole decided the time was right to rent a space on Beach Boulevard at 29th Avenue South to open Kaleidoscape Gallery, which was also a studio. It was a corner location that was glassed in on the front and side, which gave Turner a showcase to hang his art where it could be lit into the night.
“Gulfport is a good word-of-mouth town” so people started talking to them and other artists from the surrounding area began to move in, said O’Toole. Like Nan Griffin, a painter, and her husband Bill, a ceramicist who opened Griffin Studio.
The inaugural First Friday Gallery Walk was on November 5, 1993. Six artists opened their doors from 6 to 9 p.m., played music and served refreshments like wine, cake and cookies to entice local and nearby visitors to linger while they shopped.
Artists with storefronts on Beach Boulevard between 28th Avenue South and 31st Avenue South also began to offer display space to others for these special nights that were culturally different from the more southern end of the street that was “fairly rough,” said O’Toole.
The people interviewed for this article all agree the biker bar and drug scene the city was known for in the early 90s and before was in transition to becoming more of an artists’ colony. And, a new generation of people was moving into the city and fixing up affordable homes, said O’Toole.
When the Tampa Bay art critic Mary Ann Marger declared that Gulfport had taken its place in the local art scene in a full-page feature article published on Friday, May 6, 1994 in the St. Petersburg Times, the second largest newspaper in the state, everything about the Gallery Walk changed.
Plenty of new people from all around Tampa Bay began to visit, said O’Toole. The Times article “brought the biggest crowd ever,” said Turner in a Gabber Arts Beat column published on November 4, 1999 that detailed the sixth anniversary of Gallery Walk.
The Influence and Perspective of Artists
“When we started, we were trying to attract people to Beach Boulevard to develop an arts community,” said Elizabeth Neily, a wildlife painter who displayed her artwork as part of the Sabel Palm Galleries, owned by Dave and Cora Kent. According to Turner in his Gabber column, the Kents were “truly the pioneers, the first purveyors of art on the street, the founders.”
The Kents hosted art openings and had outside events near their courtyard shop, said Neily, who started the Gulfport Arts Council and served as its president.
Along the way, “Gallery Walk” was changed to “Art Walk.”
In recent years, Neily has become more of a fiber artist with fabrics and yarns and she is now one of three owners of Fab Fiber on Gulfport Boulevard.
For the future, “there needs to be new life, a new vision and more artist input” in the Art Walk events, she said. “Right now, it just seems that anybody can set up. There is no kind of vetting process. There is a lot of artists, but I don’t see a lot of high quality art.”
There doesn’t seem to be any clear goals or mission for Art Walk, she said.
Neily said she would also like to see a listing put together by the Gulfport Merchants Chamber (GMC) in print or online of the art galleries and studios in town.
“There wouldn’t have been any art scene if it hadn’t been for the Art Walk,” said Lynn Brown, a painter and owner of Lynne Brown Fine Arts. Brown also served on the Gulfport City Council and had been a curator at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts where she taught art history for years. She’s been a Gulfport resident since 1978.
When Nan Griffin, a former student of Brown’s, opened a shop in Gulfport with her husband, Brown attended the opening and was inspired to open her own place.
“We had so much fun,” said Brown. “We were a group of friends all together day in and day out, in and out of each other’s studios. Talking. Having parties. Exchanging ideas. It was a terrific community.” In the 1990s, the city really helped artists and their galleries in every way such as providing streetscaping and facilitating permits.
Around 1995, Ralph and Catherine Bassett, retired singers from the New York City Opera, started a feature in Gulfport called Music for a Sunday Afternoon and did about four shows a year in the Casino. Later, they also performed in the Catherine A. Hickman Theater.
At first, the shows were free. Then organizers insisted that tickets be sold at $2 each to control attendance numbers so there would not be problems with the fire marshal, said Ralph Bassett.
“The Arts Council sponsored us at the Casino venue,” said Catherine. Several local singers and musicians would join with them, including Marge Grudzinski who played the keys.
The visual arts and musical arts came together and made for a nice neighborhood to be in, said Ralph Bassett.
Additionally, the Gulfport Players introduced theater arts to the city, he said. First they performed in a Beach Boulevard venue, then they moved to the Back Door Theater located on 49th Street South and finally to the Hickman Theater.
“Artists tend to be the forefront to a gentrification of a neighborhood,” he said. “We see lots of new building and people who are attracted to the arts coming here. The neighborhood will grow, expand and become more upscale, which is always good.”
Gulfport visual artists don’t create art so much on Beach Boulevard any more, said Catherine Bassett. “They work in their homes, garages and workshops where they cannot be under pressure to pay rent downtown.”
The early Art Walk along Beach Boulevard played a significant role, however, because they drew in customers and art lovers who would become acquainted with the area, said Dawn Fisher, Eye of the Dragon shop owner and former two-term Gulfport City Council member from 2001-2005. The shop specialized in Asian décor pieces. Fisher has been a Gulfport resident since 1996.
“We used to have real crowds along the street for Art Walk,” she said. In addition to galleries, artists would be allowed to set up “their easels along the walkway in front of the shops. That was a draw too to see all these artists and their work out on the sidewalks.”
Parking wasn’t a problem in the past as it is now because there were not as many restaurants back then, said Fisher. For the future, there is “a big problem with parking and that needs to be addressed by the city; it’s going to be a deterrent to Art Walk or to people who come to eat at restaurants.”
Art Walk made Gulfport a destination and a lot of people moved here because of it, said Fisher’s partner Cathy Kaiser, who was a support person for the Arts District artists beginning in 1994. Around the late 1990s, she also served as the treasurer of the Arts Council. “It put Gulfport on the map. It was before the downtown St. Pete first Fridays. Just about everything has revolved around it.”
Art Walk Now and in the Future
“Typically, there are 35 artists at Art Walk” for each first Friday and third Saturday, said Suzie King, owner of SIK Promotions, the local business that has been promoting the Art Walk evenings for about 14 years. “We are here for the businesses.”
Now, everything at each street booth is handmade, she said. And, several of the vendors are Gulfport-based artists.
“When people go to a town and there’s only so much to see, they need at least an hour’s worth of walking around time to keep their interest. When we have the Art Walks, we have that,” said King. “We have art on the corners. We have art in the galleries.”
Members of the GMC help to shape the look and feel of the Art Walk nights.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a huge increase in what the arts mean to our community,” said GMC President Barbara Banno. “And, not just Art Walk. People who have lived here for a long time or have just moved here really embrace the arts. People are doing murals on their homes, buying from local artists and putting sculptures in their front yards.”
Art Walk attracts people to the streets of the town and that helps small businesses be successful, said Banno.
The GMC is working with the Gulfport Historical Society and plans are in the works to showcase the 25 years of Art Walk in some way in February 2019, said Banno.
For future Art Walks, having “people on the streets demonstrating what they do will bring it to a higher level,” said Banno. “You have to evolve with what’s happening in today’s scene to support small businesses and the artists. I think a lot of people would like to see that.”
King says she agrees with Banno’s concept of having more working artists at Art Walk.
Like it was in the beginning.