In the late 1980s, Vicki Van Buskirk talked five other art gallery and shop owners into staying open late on a Friday night for an “art event.”
“It was a disaster,” said Van Buskirk, then the owner of the Toucan Gallery at 2505 Montana Ave. “Nobody showed up.”
So her hopes weren’t particularly high when, in 1994, local artists Allan Lenhardt and Marc Vischer, inspired by artwalks in Seattle and Portland, decided to try organizing a similar event in Billings.
Van Buskirk was among the handful of gallery owners who participated in the first Billings ArtWalk that year. For whatever reason, this time it worked.
And it has continued to work five times a year for the past 20 years, through good times and bad and even during snowstorms and bouts of bitter cold. It is held on the first Friday of May, August, October, December and February. Galleries show off their best work, many serve food and drink, artists put on demonstrations and musicians and other performers entertain.
This Friday’s ArtWalk, running from 5 to 9 p.m., will involve 24 galleries and shops, stretching from North 20th to North 31st Street and from Minnesota Avenue to the railroad tracks in the Fifth Avenue corridor.
“I think it’s really turned into a great downtown event,” Van Buskirk said. “And I think the restaurants and bars would agree with that.”
Bob Durden, now the senior curator at the Yellowstone Art Museum, shared a tiny gallery with six or seven other artists, including Vischer, when that first ArtWalk was held in 1994.
Their Art First gallery was located above Vinnie’s restaurant, where Bin 119 is now, on the 100 block of North Broadway. Durden said the ArtWalk has always been “the great equalizer — very democratic and very social.”
It gave people who might have felt intimated by going into a museum or gallery a chance to eat, drink, mingle and introduce themselves to art informally and with no pressure. It was also a memorable social event, Durden said, particularly toward the end of the evening, when regulars would gather at the Toucan.
“If you hadn’t seen artist friends or patrons for a while, you could pretty much count on seeing them at Vicki’s gallery,” he said.
Van Buskirk, who later sold the Toucan to Allison O’Donnell and Mark Sanderson, said she always had good sales during the ArtWalk, but usually sales were even better the next day. People who were too busy visiting galleries to do much shopping on the night of the event came back the next day hoping to buy something they’d seen.
In addition to helping gallery owners and fostering an appreciation of the arts, the ArtWalk had a lasting impact on the city in another way.
“It was responsible for getting people to think about downtown again,” Durden said.
The success of ArtWalk was fresh in people’s minds when work started on the Downtown Billings Framework, a lengthy blueprint for revitalizing the downtown that grew out of dozens of crowded public meetings.
If you haven’t lived here long, it might be hard to imagine how bleak things were before that process started.
“At one point I had the only occupied building in that whole block,” Van Buskirk said of her Montana Avenue gallery. Transients kept breaking into other buildings on the block, stripping them of copper wiring and even starting fires to keep warm.
But she hung on.
“I read something back in the 1970s, that the best investment you could make was property in a historic district,” she said.
In the late 1990s, with Van Buskirk and a few other business people leading the charge, a streetscaping project — mostly paid for by property owners — began the transformation of Montana Avenue into the bustling commercial and entertainment district it is today.
And the success of the Montana Avenue project persuaded property owners in the core of the downtown to undertake similar revitalization efforts. It is not for nothing that arts supporters talk about the economic benefits of the arts.
Besides taking part in the first ArtWalk, Van Buskirk went on to coordinate the event for the next 10 years, succeeded by an employee of hers for two years, and for the past eight years by Sally McIntosh.
McIntosh’s brother, the late Bill McIntosh, had hired Van Buskirk as a picture framer in 1978 and eventually sold his building to her. Sally McIntosh ran the family business on Grand Avenue until 1998, when she moved back to Montana Avenue, right next to the Toucan Gallery.
Durden said Van Buskirk was “really kind of the linchpin” in the Billings art scene, “the anchor for contemporary art on the retail side of things.” And under her leadership the ArtWalk became ever bigger and more popular.
Van Buskirk, for her part, credits McIntosh for the event’s continued success.
“She’s the best thing for the ArtWalk,” Van Buskirk said. “Sally’s found ways to make the meetings more fun and get people involved.”
Artist Rich Clawson helped McIntosh transform the old St. Louis Café building into her new store, and Clawson’s own project, Level 504, a sprawling arts center on the northeast edge of the downtown, became an important stop on the ArtWalk tour.
McIntosh, who closed her art-supply business in 2007, said this winter’s ArtWalks proved how successful the event has become. The forecast for the December event showed such cold temperatures that there was talk of postponing it. But several venues, including the Yellowstone Art Museum, had big events planned and couldn’t reschedule.
So the ArtWalk went ahead as planned, and though visitor numbers were down, sales held steady. Then it happened again in February, with more sub-zero temperatures, reduced numbers and steady sales.
“Unless there’s a flood, a tornado or a hurricane, we’re sticking with the schedule,” McIntosh said.
As another sign of continuing success and expansion, this Friday, for the first time, three Minnesota Avenue galleries — Chinatown Gallery, Big Sky Blue Gallery and Anderson Art Studio & Gallery — will be on the tour.
“I’m just thrilled to see how that goes for the three of them,” McIntosh said.