PORTLAND, Maine — An estimated 3,000 people are expected to flood downtown Portland on Friday night. But this isn’t because of tourists disembarking from a cruiseship. No, it’s something entirely different: the monthly art walk held every first Friday in the Forest City.
Now in its 14th year, Portland’s First Friday Art Walk is “the largest monthly free cultural event in the state,” Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Creative Portland, said. “If anyone can top it, let me know.”
From Biddeford to Bar Harbor, Saco to Presque Isle, these monthly self-guided strolls through studios, galleries and creative warrens can be more edifying than a blockbuster show at a well-endowed museum. You can smell the oil drying on the canvas, see the sweat on the sculptor’s brow as he wields an axe.
Whether held on the first Friday, third Thursday or last Friday, these walks have been thriving across the state for a solid decade. According to the Maine Arts Commission, which helps promote such grassroots events, there are more than 80 art walks held each year and more are springing up.
“They are on the increase; there is not an ebb and flow,” said Kerstin Gilg, director of media and performing arts for Maine Arts Commission, which lists 18 on its site artwalkmaine.org. “The ones that started it are still going. It’s uncommon to have an art walk come undone.”
Credited with building community and a spirited night out, an art walk is a showcase of visual arts at its core. In Bangor, the Downtown Bangor Arts Collaborative holds an art walk four times a year. The next one is Sept. 12.
“It’s a chance for people to see how artists work and what they do, to become more appreciative of how hard the artists are working and to peek at the installations they are creating,” he said.
For Stonington-based furniture maker Geoffrey Warner, Friday’s event will turn his laid-back town into a hive of activity.
“Stonington is largely a fishing village at the edge of the world,” he said. “It’s 15 miles off the beaten track. You’ve got to pull people here with something.”
It was a no-brainer for the maker of Owl Furniture and local artist Anne-Claude Cotty to start an art walk approximately eight years ago.
“It’s not that difficult to pull artists together,” he said. “There are 12 artist studios and galleries, and you can walk to all of it.”
The art scene here is diverse, from local professionals like landscape painter Jill Hoy to serious craftsmen like Warner.
“We are full-time artists. It’s what we’ve done for our living,” Warner said. “This supplements what we do. We don’t rely on it.”
In many communities like Portland, non-art-related businesses want a piece of the art walk action. There are wine tastings, face-paintings, cotton candy, boutique sales and sometimes circus performers. Promoters and art walk advocates like Creative Portland walk a fine line.
“I strive to protect the integrity of the art walk,” Hutchins said. “It’s not an advertisement for shopping downtown.”
Since the inception of Portland’s First Friday Art Walk, she estimates $1 million has been sunk annually into the local economy during these strolls.
In a town like Gardiner, where an art walk steps off three times a year, the extra activity makes a difference.
“They are economic drivers,” Gilg said. “On a Friday night in Gardiner, Main Street traffic is not as high as when there is an art walk or another event.”
Portland has been able to close off Congress Street twice for the walk, turning the arts district into a pedestrian street fair. Not all communities can reach such festive heights.
“If there is tightrope walker, a circus school, fire dancers, that is great. But at the core, it’s a visual arts-based event,” Gilg said. “The art walk formula is the art walk formula.”
And for many gallery owners that formula spells success.
Bruce Busko of Landing Gallery in Rockland said the city’s art walk has translated into direct sales, though it’s not always a sure thing. He can sell up to 10 paintings during the citywide event that runs from May to December.
“It doesn’t matter how many people you have coming through,” said Busko, who believes less is more because he can spend time with collectors. “It’s not a numbers game, in terms of sales.”
The busiest night last year saw 450 coming into his gallery, located across from the Farnsworth Art Museum. So far this year, the most successful Arts in Rockland First Friday drew 300.
“It’s definity a good thing — no doubt about it. It gets people to see what you have,” he said. “Sometimes it takes years to get people to make a decision.”
When that does happen, it makes the 15 to 20 bottles of wine and goodies he lays out to keep the party rolling a drop in the bucket.
Now in its third year, Art Walk Lewiston Auburn, which is held on the last Friday of the month from May to September, offers artists a platform to sell their work and network. By uniting these solitary creatives, an art scene is starting to form.
Grayling Cunningham, 39, is an abstract artist who shares space in Confess Studios on Lisbon Street. After being inspired by a show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts years ago, he helped ignite the art walk here. Last month, 500 people came through the streets of Lewiston to catch the buzz.
From an artist’s standpoint, supporting your local potter is akin to shopping and eating local.
“You need to support people that are creating a sustainable vision for the future of the city,” Cunningham said.
When the Lewiston Auburn Art Walk began, 18 to 20 artists worked here. Today that number is close to 35 artists, Cunningham said.
“It expands the scene and gives artist a platform to be more aware of one another,” he said. “We are building a community of artists.”
Though arduous at times to keep going, art walks shed light on what can be a lonely pursuit.
“As long as the arts are supported in Maine, and as long as the communities support the arts, they are here to stay,” Gilg said.