Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Mark Walton
Sat, Sept 18 & Sun, Sept 19, 11 am to 5 pm
When I was a kid growing up in Calgary, I used to get dragged along on a charity walk called Miles for Millions. During the '80s, when I first heard of Artwalk, I was instantly reminded of Miles for Millions. I had a nightmarish vision of trudging for miles downtown with a noisy, snooty crowd, boisterously tramping through every gallery we could find.
It seemed like a ludicrous idea. After all, for me at least, viewing art has always been an individual pursuit. If I wanted crowds, noise and action, I'd go to a nightclub or a football game.
Of course, now that I'm older and wiser I can appreciate Miles for Millions. Public events like that tend to act on a symbolic level and set the tone or characterize the personality of a community. And the same can be said for Artwalk. No longer is the good old Cowtown a sparse artistic wasteland; we live in a more sophisticated city these days, one that offers a profusion of private galleries, artist-run centres and public art institutions.
Nevertheless, explains Nicholas Jones, president of the Artwalk Society of Calgary, not everyone realizes this. "Ultimately, when people get to a gallery it still is that peaceful place, but we need the noise and excitement of Artwalk to bring people back inside.
"People have forgotten how interesting art is, they've forgotten that it's really good for you to sit down in a quiet place once in awhile, look at a piece of art and not be bombarded by sensual stimuli from film, video games and the rest of the crap we're caught up with in society."
This not to say that Jones is down on the electronic media or contemporary art. In fact, the main reason he joined the Artwalk society was to update and streamline its marketing approach.
In 1996, Jones and business partner Jill Peterson were operating Art Is Vital gallery at Eau Claire Market. Although the gallery was not yet an official Artwalk member - a gallery must be established for three years before it can join - they decided to conduct a survey of people visiting Art Is Vital during Artwalk. For Jones, the survey revealed a number of problems, including the fact that most of the visitors were regular Artwalk trekkers and there weren't a lot of newcomers.
Jones took the survey results to the next Artwalk general meeting and ended up becoming the society's new marketing director, a position he feels is extremely important. "There are big holes in people's lives with respect to visual art today, and that's happened in the last generation or two. The public got disconnected from it and I blame the fine arts industry itself for that.
"What happened is that our marketing for everything in society - from cars and carpets to stereos and videos - became much more rich and dynamic. Yeah, it's all fluff and most of it's empty and doesn't leave you with much, but, man it's seductive. And during that whole flurry, that exciting cyclone of consumer goods, the arts lost ground."
However, Jones points out that Artwalk is not just a sales gimmick. "We're not telling people to buy this or that kind of art; we want people to get excited about art again, as a consumer choice, but also as something that becomes part of your environment and your life."
Jones's marketing strategy paid off last year when 13,000 people turned out for Artwalk '97 - a 40 per cent to 60 per cent increase in attendance. He says commercial galleries even reported making a few sales during the event.
Jones attributes the success to different advertising tactics. Instead of sending out a simple three-page flyer with the daily paper, the society designed an attractive color booklet that was distributed through publications which appeal to people interested in the arts.
This year, Artwalk has once again evolved, expanding its boundaries to include the entire city. "Anyone living in Deer Run is going to drive downtown and then walk," comments Jones, "so lets get real about the walking thing. We sat down and thought about it and decided that the places where artists study, the producers of artists like the U of C, should also be included.
This year's Artwalk consists of 44 venues which, as usual, will put on their most accessible face for the two-day event. Nevertheless, there's a diverse array of exhibits ranging from EM Media's video screenings to Eric Cameron's iconoclastic "thick paintings" at the Muttart and to Joe Fafard's latest farm animal sculptures at Trepanier Baer Gallery.
Jones proudly announced that to celebrate its 15th anniversary, Artwalk now has a year-round Web site. There's also a voice mailbox people can call to ask questions (274-8177).
As well, the Artwalk society and Fast Forward have teamed up to produce a fun questionnaire (PAGE*****) which participants can fill out and bring to the wind-up party at Criterion on Sunday night. Completing the questionnaire entitles you to a gratis Big Rock brew and a chance to win a $150 gift certificate at an Artwalk venue of your choice.
Jones notes it's all part of Artwalk's effort to encourage a younger audience to get involved. It's something Jones and Peterson are always striving for at Art Is Vital gallery which often shows nude and erotic paintings of the human figure.
"Some of the most astute comments we've heard in our gallery have either come from elderly people - who've seen and done it all - or young people," observes the 37-year-old Jones. "It's the middle-agers in between, those who missed an introduction to art, who get stumped by our figurative works. They either snicker like schoolchildren or they're stone-faced and quiet and don't know how to react. Usually the young adults and students have interesting questions and a more mature attitude.
"Currently we have a lot of younger people getting involved in Artwalk, volunteering their time and services to help with photography, layout and design, organization. It makes me optimistic because it provides a whole new generation who bring fresh energy to it and inflect it with their own flavor and style."
(Artwalk's opening reception will be held on Friday, September 18 at the Muttart Public Art Gallery from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and the wind-up party at Criterion Restaurant and Bar goes Sunday, September 20 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.).
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