Part gallery walk, part performing-arts festival and part street party, Arts Walk has become a mainstay of Olympia’s social and cultural life.
The twice-yearly event — happening for the 50th time this weekend — is beloved by many as a community holiday of sorts. And Arts Walk’s impact on Olympia has gone well beyond providing a single weekend of mixing, mingling and checking out the creations of friends, neighbors and strangers alike.
“Arts Walk has defined our community in the sense of how we relate to the arts,” organizer Stephanie Johnson said. “It has made art accessible. People in Olympia feel really comfortable with the arts, because they have participated as viewers or they have shown their own art or their children have.
“It has made our community really comfortable with and really literate about the arts, which is not something you see in a lot of communities.”
It’s part of Olympia’s do-it-yourself spirit, said Jeanne Allan, who organized the first Arts Walk back in 1990 as a part of the Olympia Film Festival.
“We are really lucky to live in a place where there are friends and neighbors who contribute to the fabulousness of our community with their skills and their passions and their visions,” she said. “Art and sharing art and the whole Arts Walk experience is part of that.
“Almost every time, I find somebody doing something that feels fresh and captures my imagination. The fact that I found something like that as many times as I have is absolutely incredible.”
At the first event — called Art Walk — artists showed their work at 14 businesses, and seven art studios opened to the public. Allan, who was then on the board of the Olympia Film Society, came up with the idea to add art to the film festival.
“Shortly before the film festival happened, there had been a night when it just happened that three places had visiting artists on the same night,” she said, “and I thought: ‘Oh, this is so much fun. I wish we did it more.’ ”
She talked to artists and business owners, and the Olympia Arts Commission helped with the printing of the event’s first map.
Among the sites for that first Arts Walk, were Batdorf & Bronson, Childhood’s End and The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, then celebrating its fifth anniversary. Participating artists included Tom Anderson, Susie Engelstad, Calvin Johnson and Michael Olsen, along with soloists from the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.
By the following spring, the Arts Commission had taken charge of the event, which has continued twice a year since.
This weekend’s walk includes 117 businesses. And what began as a single evening has now stretched to two days in 1999. And the fall event was expanded to two days in 2011.
When she began working for the city of Olympia in 1998, Johnson was a quarter-time employee, and her entire job was to organize Arts Walk. She now is the city’s arts and event manager. Setting the stage for Arts Walk still is a major part of what she does.
“It’s what the community makes it,” Johnson said. “I’m just the conductor of a really large orchestra. I always talk about Arts Walk as a tree. I make the structure, and the businesses and the artists in the community hang their art from that structure.”
Twenty-five years later, it’s hard to imagine the city without its Arts Walk.
“What was somebody’s whim is now an institution that everyone can enjoy,” Allan said.