The Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk is a free event held every second Thursday afternoon and evening in and around the Historic Core's Gallery Row neighborhood. For this one night each month, Downtown LA returns to its historic pedestrian-based culture, a vibrant scene that is itself a draw for locals and tourists seeking an authentic urban experience. Launched in 2004 by the then-marginal community's pioneer gallerists, Art Walk has become a grassroots urban success story, with upwards of 6000 people coming out each month to see the newest art exhibits, enjoy the bustling street culture, eat, drink and socialize.
History of the downtown Art Walk
In 2003, not long after the formation of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC), the Council's Arts, Aesthetics and Culture Committee (AAC) formally requested that the City of Los Angeles designate of a portion of the Historic Core as “Gallery Row.” This area, Main and Spring Streets between 2nd and 9th Streets, would come to comprise the heart of the Downtown Art Walk.
The Gallery Row concept was the work of Kjell Hagen (Inshallah Gallery) and Nic Cha Kim (arts activist/playwright). At that time, the neighborhood had just three galleries: Inshallah Gallery (Main Street near 3rd), bank (Main Street near 4th) and 727 Gallery (Spring Street near 7th). Two other Spring Street galleries, the Lab and Gallery 835, had opened and closed by 2003. The borders for the proposed district were largely driven by the desire for inclusion of the existing art venues, and by the obvious potential for expansion into vacant storefronts.
When Gallery Row was proposed, the Historic Core was largely synonymous with Skid Row. By day, the area was marginally active with shoppers and workers, but by early evening the metal gates came down and straight citizens vacated. The dozens of dirty, desolate blocks became the site of blatant drug dealing and abuse, homeless encampments, vice and pain.
But there was a small but lively population of working artists in the residential lofts of Tom Gilmore's Old Bank District and Izek Shomof's Spring Towers Lofts & Premiere Towers. A few stubborn visionaries saw great potential in the city's beautiful, semi-abandoned downtown, with its low rents for gorgeous spaces. Still the general public was skeptical. Few ventured into the Historic Core by day, and only the most daring attended underground parties, openings and screenings after dark.
The City Council motion to designate Gallery Row was passed in July 2003, co-sponsored by Jan Perry and Antonio Villaraigosa, and “Gallery Row” street signs were installed in the fall. An official opening ceremony was held on May 15, 2004 at Biddy Mason Park.
The increased visibility succeeded in attracting more people ready to take a chance on the neighborhood, and by September 2004, with eight galleries open and his own space at 5th and Main a month from opening, Bert Green launched the Downtown Art Walk, to take place on the second Thursday of the month. DLANC's AAC Committee became the nonprofit Gallery Row Organization, dedicated to promoting and developing the district's cultural resources.
At first, the Downtown Art Walk encompassed all of downtown LA, from the 110 to the LA River, and from the 101 south to the 10 freeway. By late 2005, the number of participating galleries had increased to more than fifteen, and in 2006 to more than twenty, although the boundaries of the Art Walk were reduced, and its focus became Gallery Row. This shift ensured the pedestrian nature of the event.
Galleries away from the center were suffering for traffic, but Gallery Row was seeing remarkable increases in visitor numbers, from 75 brave souls at the first Art Walk to more than 5000 per month in 2009.
In 2007 the number of participating galleries reached thirty, and in 2009, forty-five. Starting in June 2007, DLANC sponsored an Art Walk shuttle, which was taken over by Esotouric in spring 2008 and became a performance venue called The Hippodrome.
Between 2003 and 2009 the area has also seen an explosion in residential conversion of formerly vacant or underused commercial buildings. As the resident population increased, so has the cultural vitality of the district. The public is not as skeptical as it was. The Downtown Art Walk is now among the neighborhood's biggest draws, attracting thousands of people to explore the community, and the Historic Core and Gallery Row are becoming recognized as one of the most significant grassroots success stories in Los Angeles history.