Flint's downtown ArtWalk: 20-plus venues, a few thousand fans, and art galore every month

It’s Friday evening. People casually stroll along South Saginaw Street under trees showing autumn’s hues. They move at a pace as if they have nowhere to go or at least as if they are not in a hurry to get there. Others stop to chat on street corners or in front of downtown restaurants where they happen to meet friends and acquaintances. This lingering scene recurs every month, the second Friday of the month to be precise. The strollers’ pace will quicken as winter moves in, but once they have arrived at their destination, many of these same people will find it warm and inviting.

It’s early in the evening but already the crowd is bustling at the Greater Flint Arts Council, where Greg Fiedler expects 800 to 1,200 patrons to crowd the gallery during the monthly, three-hour event. They come for different reasons, says Fiedler, president and CEO of the Greater Flint Arts Council.

“Food is a big part. Beverages. Music. You give them incredible artwork to appreciate while they are here,” he says. “What people focus on is different for everyone. There are people that come only for the art. There are people who come for the music.  They will get a plate a of food and sit down and listen to music the whole night. It’s the combination of those four elements that makes ArtWalk so successful,” he says. “It’s such a huge variety of offerings.  It gives people a lot to do in a single evening.”

There is a large crowd at Buckham Gallery and to a lesser degree at many of the other 20 or so ArtWalk venues on this October evening. Fiedler believes ArtWalk draws 2,500 to 3,000 visitors a month if you include the business in the galleries and restaurants.

What draws people? It's simple, Fiedler says: "Sustenance."

The first ArtWalk came in 1994, though by a different name. Falling on April 15th, the event was known as the Tax Day Gallery Hop and was hosted at eight locations in Flint. It was the brainchild of Fiedler and Carlos Perez, then director of student services at the University of Michigan-Flint.

After moving into the existing GFAC exhibition and offices building in 1998, Fiedler met with the agency’s public relations committee members William Stolpin, Sam Morello and Carole Brender and put together ArtWalk as we know it today. They organized other art agencies to begin hosting it on a monthly basis beginning in July of 2000 with six venues in either downtown or the east village. ArtWalk has continued every month since with the number of venues growing to more than 20. It has morphed into a completely downtown walking event—“at least a New York walk,” Fiedler says,  laughing— with venues from Totem Books on Court Street to Soggy Bottom Bar on Martin Luther King Avenue.

“The cool thing was that the festivals would come and go but ArtWalk was every month and it was all year long,” he says. “So it would be safe to say that if you had to point at any single event, ArtWalk did more to create excitement downtown than about any other event that happens down here.”

“Considering the size of downtown, there’s not a single venue downtown that isn’t full during ArtWalk, including restaurants and clubs,” he says.

Fiedler says the attendance inside the galleries and restaurants doesn’t change by season.  “We’re just as busy in the Arts Council and Buckham and the restaurants winter to summer,” he says.  “The biggest difference is that we don’t get artists and musicians setting up in the streets so you don’t see the street traffic. At the GFAC, you come in during a snowstorm and we are packed.”

And, Fiedler notes, ArtWalk continues to bring more people downtown to experience all it has to offer.

“I don’t see the same people here every month,” Fiedler says. “Probably each month there’s 65 percent of the people I don’t recognize. That surprises me. The crowd has evolved throughout the years.  The crowd has gotten younger as the universities have grown and they started the program with the loft apartments and the dormitories downtown. So we are getting a lot more younger people into the galleries.”

Michael Melet, owner of the former Vogue Stores and board member of Buckham Gallery has been to almost every one of the ArtWalk events since its inception. “It shows people who normally wouldn’t come downtown what it looks like,” he says.

Jeff Grossklaus of Grand Blanc gives supporting evidence to this. Grossklaus stood inside Buckham Gallery at his first experience with Artwalk, marveling at the event and the number of people in attendance. “I’m shocked,” he says. “I didn’t know this many people came to downtown Flint.”

ArtWalk brings more people to Buckham Gallery than any other single event every month, gallery director Lynn Penning said.

“ArtWalk is our biggest opportunity to expose art to the community because the attendance that night is so high,” she says. It is a social event with people coming in and out of the gallery all evening and a constant stream of dialogue, conversation, even debates about art. “Viewing art does a lot of things for a human being. It’s entertaining. It’s intellectually stimulating. It’s fun to see what other people create. It’s just a holistic thing in life,” Penning says.

“The arts enhance our life. An art gallery can be as much fun as a football game.”

The next Second ArtWalk is 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. As always, it is free and open to the public. Maps and the list of participating locations are available at the Greater Flint Arts Council.

The Greater Flint Arts Council is located at 816 S. Saginaw St. in downtown Flint. It can be contacted at 810-238-ARTS (2787) or on Facebook.
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