Art Walk, Revitalized

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The 15th anniversary of Laguna’s First Thursdays Art Walk heralds a celebration and a rebirth of what it means to be a world-class art community.

By Jennifer Pappas | Photos by Jody Tiongco

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First Thursdays Art Walk attendees visit the JoAnne Artman Gallery, where they sip on drinks and enjoy the art.

In the dwindling light of a typical Laguna sunset, the downtown streets are bustling with couples, tourists, families and tight throngs of young people. It’s only Thursday night, but music seems to be coming from four different places at once. Nearly every door is thrown open, an invitation to enter, mingle, engage. There is a buzz in the air—a buzz that can only mean one thing: First Thursdays Art Walk.

It seems fitting that this year, art walk’s 15th anniversary, that the Laguna Beach institution has reached an apex of historic fervor. Having doubled its membership since January of last year to upwards of 40 galleries spanning four miles of coastline and canyon and attracting a new slew of sponsors, First Thursdays Art Walk is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. This year especially, art walk has become an event—something to anticipate, somewhere to see and be seen. Laguna Beach Magazine takes a look back—and forward—to discover how art walk continues to capitalize on the unique personality of community and art in Laguna Beach.

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DeBilzan Gallery serving wine.

The Beginning

According to art walk lore, in 1998 Peter Blake and William DeBilzan, gallery owners in north Laguna, put their heads together in an attempt to generate more interest and business in the art galleries located on Gallery Row. They decided they were going to stay open late, serve drinks and hors d’oeuvres and set up a festive evening about once a month. They established Saturday night as art night before gradually segueing into first Thursdays. The two men nurtured the event until the city of Laguna Beach hired Cultural Arts Manager Sian Poeschl in 1999 to step in and bring a little organization to the concept. Shortly afterward, Sian helped form a First Thursdays Art Walk committee, turning Peter and William’s brainchild into a citywide event.

From that point on, first Thursdays has undergone a series of ebbs and flows. In January 2012, Dora Wexell, executive director of seven-degrees and current president of First Thursdays Art Walk, was elected to the board. Dora has played an integral role in moving art walk forward, revitalizing what had become a stagnant institution and making it exciting and fresh again—to the degree that many galleries are thinking about rejoining art walk after years of self-imposed hiatus.

Aside from the changes implemented within the organization itself, recent years have seen a shift in the Laguna art scene as a whole. Once touted as a one-trick pony for commercial fine art, traditions have changed, making room for cutting-edge contemporary art in the process.

According to Peter, who’s been around long enough to see both sides of the spectrum, “Now that Laguna is more well-rounded, there’s a reason for someone who’s more open-minded to contemporary art to come here. Galleries like saltfineart and The George Gallery have finally accepted the possibility that they can survive in Laguna Beach with contemporary art.”

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Artist Ryan Heimbach at DeBilzan Gallery.

Drawing a Crowd

Over the past 15 years, member galleries have perfected the art of drawing—and keeping—a crowd. While most galleries serve some form of alcoholic beverage and hors d’oeuvres, others offer special programming and added perks such as live painting demonstrations.

Laguna Art Museum, which has participated in art walk since the beginning, offers a program called “Conversation With.” Considering that attendance on First Thursdays averages between 500 and 600 people in the summer months and 300 to 400 people in the off-season, the event series is a crowd favorite. More informal than a lecture, the program features an artist or someone of interest that works in the visual arts to come and speak. Most of the session, however, consists of fielding questions from the audience. Malcolm Warner, executive director of the museum, welcomes the casual nature of the program.

“We deliberately set it up so that it feels natural for people to come and sit down for a while, listen to the artist and then move on if they don’t want to stay for the whole thing,” he says. “We quite welcome that. In that way we provide something that’s in the spirit of art walk. People can literally walk in and walk out as they please.”

For The Signature Gallery, spiked lemonade notwithstanding, the main draw is manifold. Gallery Director Jessica Fry books a band (Half Blonde) year-round to play in the front window of the second-floor gallery. The artwork is also very niche: Each of Jessica’s five painting artists specialize in the impasto technique—thick textures in vibrant colors that seem to pop off the canvas. Jessica also guarantees an artist in-house to chat with guests each month about his or her work. “It’s not just my fine art consultants describing the artwork, it’s the artist themselves meeting with you, signing their books,” she explains. “You get to have a cocktail with an artist and talk to them one on one.”

Peter is the first to acknowledge that despite the free-flowing spirits and cheese platters, the free nosh isn’t what keeps people coming back month after month. “In the end, what brings people back and what makes art walk special is the quality of artwork,” Peter says. “Since Laguna has opened itself up to a more culturally minded person, you’re going to see more cutting edge work. What you’ll also find every month is a new exhibition as opposed to the same work by the same artist over and over again.”

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Orange County band Half Blonde plays at art walk in the second-story windows of The Signature Gallery.

Looking Forward

So what do the next 15 years hold? If Dora has anything to say about it: more, much more. Backed by an active new board comprised of gangbuster committees, Dora has worked hard over the past year and a half to improve art walk’s membership, public image and sponsorship. “All indications are that we’re going to keep adding galleries and sponsors,” she says. “As part of changing our image to be more inclusive, we re-branded our brochure and our website, which was a big step for us. Going forward, we want to keep working on our marketing and our social media.” In addition, Dora plans on making further changes to the way the organization functions as a community-wide institution. In other words, the old-school exclusivity of art walk is no more. Now, the mentality leans heavily on the concept of “the more, the merrier.”

“I don’t want to exclude people because they’re a retailer or they’re a restaurant,” Dora says. “We expanded the view of what a sponsor could be.  … There’s an old school thought that it’s supposed to be all about the galleries. I don’t really believe that to be true. I think the more people that participate, the more people from the community and outside the community that come and join in, the more restaurants and hotels that are open, offering art walk specials—it’s just going to bring more people. Overall, [it’s] a better experience for everybody, including the members.”

Board member and gallery director of saltfineart, Suzanne Walsh, furthers Dora’s new philosophy: “There’s a lot of concern and talk about how first Thursdays can help their members as much as humanly possible. There’s this great feeling, just in the last year, where you just see art walk evolving in a really great direction.” She adds that the organization’s new website aims to become a community resource for anyone interested in art in Laguna.

According to Suzanne, as the world becomes more inundated and influenced by social media, nonprofit organizations like First Thursdays Art Walk become all the more important, especially for smaller galleries. “What are the best possible ways for a fine art gallery to stay afloat and promote themselves in a positive way with all of this noise?” Suzanne asks. “How do you speak for yourself when everyone has a Facebook page? When everyone has a website? … First Thursdays is moving in a direction where they can be a positive representation and voice for all their member galleries.”

In the end, the spirit and future of art walk can be summed up in a single phrase. As gallery director of DeRu’s Fine Arts, Kathleen Updyke Barrett, says, “Art is about enjoying things. So for the people involved, 15 years is a landmark.”

As Peter puts it, “Frankly, 15 years is a long time for any cultural event to last. I’m most proud of the fact that it’s lasted this long and that we have people in Orange County and Laguna Beach that are culturally-minded enough to spend an evening enjoying art. … I’ve seen the art walk over the years morph into different things. When it first started, it was all our collectors; it was very serious. Then it turned into a good time and word got out that people were having a lot of fun.”

First Thursdays Art Walk will celebrate its 15th anniversary Thursday, Sept. 5, followed by an invite-only party for member galleries and their guest patrons Sept. 26. LBM

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  1. You know this is SOOOO necessary. For so long Laguna Beach has been so void of culture of any kind. It is still no where near where it should be to compete with major cities like LA but it’s nice to see small efforts!


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