In Focus: The Downtown Art Walk

Downtown Art Walk
"Our Lady of DTLA", mural by Robert Vargas at the corner of Spring and 6th.
“Our Lady of DTLA”, mural by Robert Vargas at the corner of Spring and 6th.

Whether you love or hate Downtown L.A., you have to admit that it has gone through tremendous changes in the past ten years. Just the last few have been a blur of trendy new restaurants, hip bars, coffee shops, food trucks—not to mention the ever-increasing popularity of the Downtown Art Walk, held on the second Thursday of every month.

Aside from pop-up spaces, the Downtown Art Walk organization lists over 30 galleries officially taking part in the event, which, according to popular belief, is all happening within a well-defined walkable area between 4th and 7th, along Spring and Main… and parts of Broadway, and… well, around Fig & 7th and, er… oh yeah, Little Tokyo.

Sorry to be a buzzkill, but as you may begin to suspect… it’s not that simple. If you want to get the most out of the Downtown Art Walk, you better come prepared, or you’ll miss the very thing you came to see.

Busy sidewalk on Spring, in front of the Farmers & Merchants Bank.
Busy sidewalk on Main, in front of the Farmers & Merchants Bank.

According to the organization, the Art Walk is a “public art phenomenon”, a monthly celebration of the arts.  But if I were to quote myself, I’d say it’s “a recurring block party featuring some art, and a whole bunch of other stuff that has very little to do with it”.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m actually a fan, and even though my first few art-seeking missions in the Historic Core failed miserably, I did learn a thing or two, and still managed to have a rip-roaring good time. What can I say? I’m a sucker for truffle fries, and can’t turn down a good cocktail, or a spontaneous drum circle.

After spending the last five years working in or around Gallery Row, I can tell you that the Downtown Art Walk has brought a lot of money and interest to the area, and is at least partially responsible for populating the Downtown core with something other than tumbleweeds—humans, who build communities, breathe life into local businesses, do yoga, and walk their cute little dogs while eating froyo… all well and good, but there’s a flip side to this “snazzy” new Downtown. It’s not the siren call of art that attracts every hipster within a twenty-five-mile radius on that one special night; it’s the promise of a massive street party.

Artist Robert Vargas and a model during a live painting performance in DTLA.
Artist Robert Vargas and model during a live painting performance at 6th and Spring.

Many have criticized the Art Walk in recent years, noting that it has degenerated into nothing more than a bar crawl, and they’re not entirely wrong. On my last visit, the streets were packed with people pouring in and out of watering holes, and although masses congregated around a live painting performance by artist Robert Vargas at the corner of Spring and 6th, most of the density had to do with some kind of eating or imbibing. Galleries within a stone’s throw of a popular bar or restaurant were absolutely packed, while those on the fringe of the “golden rectangle” (as I call it) played host to few guests, some of which—let’s be honest—were crickets.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the folks from the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District (“The BID”), who, while obviously enthusiastic about the popularity of the Art Walk, indicated an interest in bringing the event back to its original intention which, when first proposed in 2003, was essentially a daytime walking tour of the galleries. Lately, it seems a lot of people are saying “amen” to that. I don’t think anyone wishes to get rid of the evening festivities, but as far as attracting and catering to daytime visitors, there seems to be an overall lack of cohesion and consistency.

Food truck heaven at the Downtown Art Walk
Food truck heaven at the Downtown Art Walk

Although the nightlife aspects of the Art Walk can be a lot of fun, you might notice that the throngs of visitors seem focused on everything but art, and if that’s the case… can we actually call it an Art Walk? Surely, businesses in the service industry are tickled pink about this (when they’re not losing customers to the hipster’s preferred foraging method: the food truck), however that’s not necessarily good for the galleries, for the exhibiting artists… or for those of us who are actually interested in art.

Believe it or not, even with all the hype surrounding the event, many first-time visitors get overwhelmed after an hour or so, throw their hands up in the air, and go home wondering… where’s the art?

The truth is, there aren’t that many galleries in the area – at least, not in the traditional sense of the word, and not all of them are easily accessible or even within walking distance of each other. Near the soft gooey (drunk, sticky) center of the Art Walk, you’ll find plenty of alternative spaces: gallery/retail hybrids selling clothing and other merchandise; artists’ studios doubling as exhibition space; empty storefronts occupied by pop-up galleries that may or may not be there when you decide to show up; and yes, a few slightly more highbrow contemporary spaces where you can spend quality time with the art. However, some of the most interesting galleries are actually scattered all around the Downtown core, a little off the beaten path.

Although the Downtown Art Walk organization serves as a loose intermediary between the galleries, the public and the event itself, it’s not a centralized organizing power and it cannot dictate a strict format to 30+ independent businesses who participate on a voluntary basis.

Todd Lychkoff, in the back of the Farmers & Merchants Bank at 136 W. 4th St.
Tod Lychkoff, in the back of the Farmers & Merchants Bank at 136 W. 4th St.

The event is meant to be a self-guided tour; the organization hosts the Art Walk Lounge (essentially the “Visitors’ Center” of the Art Walk), from 6-10 pm on the 2nd Thursday of every month. Located at 634 S. Spring St., the Lounge offers free maps, information on participating galleries, and complementary refreshments or swag from sponsors. You might even be treated to live performances, or exhibitions by featured artists. If you’d rather skip the Lounge altogether, make sure to visit www.downtownartwalk.org, but also check directly with any galleries you plan to visit as their hours can vary.

In general terms, galleries may be open as early as 10 am, and may close as late as midnight. Some have an all-day open-door policy until 9 or 10 pm, others hold short evening receptions only, and a few close early to avoid the nighttime crowds, which tend to be a little younger (and rowdier) than their daytime counterparts. It all depends on whether or not a gallery is already established, what kind of audience they seek, and if it’s worth dealing with the potential problems that arise when hundreds of people suddenly come crashing through the floodgates (and just keep on coming). Besides, a crowded atmosphere isn’t always conducive to proper art viewing, or sales for that matter… not that Art Walk nights have ever been particularly lucrative for the galleries. For better or for worse, exhibitions provide a free form of entertainment to Art Walk visitors, who, in turn, spend their money on food, drink, and retail.

Those spaces choosing to welcome the herds usually seek younger audiences and know what to expect. For them, the high visibility and word-of-mouth potential afforded by the social media savvy is worth hiring extra security and dealing with a few messes or inadvertent damage to the art and, yes, even the occasional theft.

Robert Reynolds
Robert Reynolds, at the corner of Spring and 4th.

So, what’s an art lover to do? Make the most of it.

  • Plan ahead, and realistically… plan to come back. You won’t get it all done in one night.
  • Have a look at the map below, which was compiled from the latest gallery listings on the Downtown Art Walk website, plus a few spaces that weren’t mentioned, such as the Farmers & Merchants Bank (used for pop-up exhibitions). As you can see, participating galleries aren’t always within close range of each other. Some border on Skid Row, some are up in Little Tokyo, or as far down as Pico… remember, it’s not all walkable.
  • Create your own self-guided tour. Visit DowntownArtWalk.org and pick 5-10 venues in close proximity. Make sure to visit each individual website or call ahead to verify their hours.
  • On the night itself, visit the Art Walk Lounge at 634 S. Spring St. Their maps come in handy, and they will have up-to-date information on any special events, refreshments, free stuff…
  • Be aware that what the Art Walk lists as a gallery may not, in fact, be a gallery. Some of the venues are artists’ studios located in the Spring Arts Tower or other buildings that have an open-door policy on Art Walk nights. It can be fun to visit artists in their work spaces, but if that’s not your thing, again, check individual websites to pinpoint the more “traditional” gallery spaces.
  • Safe bets for first-timers: CB1 Gallery, DAC Gallery, El Nopal Press, Gloria Delson, LACDA, Robert Reynolds, The Hive, Farmers & Merchant’s Bank (see map), the Art Mart (open-air art market), and the Spring Arts Tower (Mezzanine above The Last Bookstore, plus a few open gallery/studios & retail – see map).
Click to view a larger map
Click for larger map and descriptions

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