Galleries and shops in downtown Leesburg keep their doors open a little longer the first Friday of the month. The sidewalks are crowded as residents mill in and out of the businesses to shop, sample food and browse the arts.
The Loudoun Arts Council, which oversees the First Friday Gallery Walk since last year, plans to add music and literary entertainment to the event. The project, one of many planned by the Loudoun Arts Council, will bring acoustics performers, solo artists and poets to Leesburg's downtown streets and businesses this spring, tying together the visual and performing arts.
"This makes it more of an integrative event," said Eileen Levandoski, member of the board of directors for the Loudoun Arts Council, based in Leesburg.
The First Friday Gallery Walk formed in September 1997 when several downtown merchants agreed to keep businesses open longer at the urging of Julie Doiron, director of marketing at the Potomac Gallery, located on King Street in downtown Leesburg. Doiron found the turnout at an art show held in spring 1997 to be disappointing and wanted to do something to bring out the crowds. A few months after the gallery walk was underway, Leesburg agreed to support the event.
"I knew if I could get enough people and a commitment of two years, we could make the customers realize it was something that was going to happen," Doiron said. "It pulls people in that have never come downtown, people who live and work near downtown but never shop here."
The Potomac Gallery sees an average turnout of 150 to 200 visitors at the event each month and as many as 400 to 600 visitors during the holiday months. Doiron said one gallery relocated to downtown and another three galleries opened there since 1997.
"It brings people into galleries to be able to meet an artist, to ask a question and not feel intimidated. It's an open-house atmosphere," she said.
TWENTY MERCHANTS participated in the gallery walk this month, including art galleries, restaurants, shops and the Loudoun Museum.
“The whole town comes alive on these first Fridays,” said Gale Waldron, chair of the communication committee. “It’s just a festive atmosphere because there’s so many people going from shop to shop.”
The gallery walk attracts visitors who otherwise may be intimidated by the art scene, Waldron said. With larger crowds and food and wine provided, the atmosphere changes at the participating art galleries. “It’s intimidating for people who don’t have art backgrounds. People feel more at ease. They can look at the art in a more relaxed setting and may learn something,” she said.
Sherol Taylor and her husband Steve Taylor attended the March 1 gallery walk to shop before dinner. “It’s a good way to get people to come and see places they wouldn’t on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
“We think it’s a good thing for the town, and we hope they keep doing it,” said Steve Taylor.
Loudoun Museum Shop manager Til Bennie said she encouraged the museum to join the gallery walk when she took over the shop in December 1999.
“It’s a street fair community, a block party kind of thing. Almost everybody does something,” Bennie said. “People are making it a part of the Friday night dinner out.”
THE ARTS COUNCIL has another setting for displaying art through the new Arts in Offices program, which partners local artists with Loudoun businesses. Artists show and sell their work by displaying it in the businesses’ waiting rooms, conference rooms and other open areas. The art is rotated every two months through makeshift galleries located in participating businesses.
Leesburg-Sterling Family Practice was the first business to join in the pilot program, which began in November and became a full program in January. Since then, the business has displayed art from nine artists, rotating the work in groups of four artists.
A second business, Deidra Kokel Cosmetic and Family Dentistry in Leesburg, joined this month, and another two businesses plan to begin displaying art in May. Twelve artists are part of the program so far.
“Our mission is to promote and help the individual artists in Loudoun County. We’re just trying to find as many ways as we can to do that,” said Lynda Klein, Loudoun Arts Council administrator. “We found that visual artists have a need to display their artwork, so this gives them a way to get out in the public without costing them any money.”
The Arts in Offices enlarges and adds variety to the audiences of artwork, said Catherine Fetterman, program coordinator of Arts in Offices and an artist based in Leesburg.
"So many of us look for shows to participate in, and those come so often," Fetterman said.
Some of the art shows include artist binders with information about the artists. "We're trying to not just show the art but to share with the viewer a little more about the artist," Fetterman said.
THE ARTS COUNCIL lists artists, along with art teachers, art organizations, galleries, community centers and vineyards with art exhibits, in the Loudoun Arts Directory as another marketing tool for artists. The directory, last printed in 1999, will be updated this year to include a new listing of art service businesses. The listing will be twice as thick as the 1999 list, sporting more than 400 entries.
“It really is the be-all and end-all of Loudoun arts,” Levandoski said.
Loudoun art events are listed in the art council's bimonthly calendar of events, sent free to more than 200 members. The arts council funds grants and awards for artists and art organizations. Through the Art Share program, the arts council granted $4,500 to art organizations this year. In April, the art council’s Excellence in Arts Awards will provide cash prizes to high school artists nominated for work in all artistic venues.
“We’re not your grandfather’s council anymore. We have a lot more enthusiasm,” Levandoski said. “The number one thing we need to do is to be more visible. We can’t be a resource to artists without it.”
In existence since 1987, the arts council is an advocacy group that markets the arts and introduces programs to promote the arts and art organizations. The membership roster includes artists, arts patrons and art organizations.
Levandoski said the arts are big business in Loudoun County and Virginia. “It’s vital to a community for cultural tourism,” she said.