The price of being part of Art Walk

The First Thursdays Art Walk— where participating Laguna Beach galleries open their doors and offer live music, exhibits, appetizers or wine — has been a mainstay of this arts-centric community for 12 years.

However, a small group of gallery owners are being forced to pay for the event, they say, because other participating galleries cannot or do not pay event fees, even though they enjoy the benefit of additional foot traffic.

Participating galleries pay $80 a month to be a part of the monthly event. Fees cover the cost of free shuttles that transport guests around the city and advertising in newspapers and other publications.

"The other galleries are not supposed to stay open because they're not part of it," said Bluebird Gallery owner Kevin Shoaf, who has been a member of Art Walk since its inception. "They're reaping the benefits."

Shoaf said he's talked to the galleries that stay open and asked them why they choose not to be a paying member.

"They don't sell anything. They don't have any money," he said. "Another gallery said she doesn't see why she should pay. She'd had people thank her for being open."

Shoaf pointed out that non-participating galleries are not only keeping their doors open, but they promote in-store entertainment and other activities as "Art Walk" events.

"Being a member for this long and paying all this money … I don't want to lose a sale to a person that's not paying," he said.

Rebecca Barber, president of the Board of First Thursday's Art Walk and owner of Studio Arts Gallery, said she doesn't know what the next step is.

"It's a tough situation because we can't monitor it and can't keep people from being open on Art Walk," she said.

Galleries in particular are struggling in this economy, but Barber said she wishes the arts community would come together instead of attempt to "piggy-back" on those who are able to pay to promote the event.

The board, which is composed of volunteers, works diligently to get grants and generate membership, she said.

Examples of those who do not pay abound.

The Whitney Gallery did not return calls for comment regarding its participation in Art Walk. Although its website lists Art Walk under its events, the gallery is not a member of Art Walk. Its website also describes Art Walk as "a city-wide open house, gallery openings, city-hosted trolleys and special events."

Art Walk is not a city program, City Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl confirmed.

Lucille McElroy, owner of the Watercolor Gallery of Laguna Beach, said she her gallery is open during Art Walk but when asked if she was a paying member, she declined to comment. Her space, however, is not listed as an Art Walk participant.

Joseph Wise Gallery owner Donnie Wise said his gallery opens for Art Walk but she decided not to become a member due to the fact that she travels often and cannot always participate.

"We've never sold anything for Art Walk, except for one time," she said.

Wise said the event looks good on paper but not for sales.

Barber disagreed, pointing to the Arts and Economic Prosperity report, which indicates that nonprofit arts and culture organizations in Laguna Beach generated $54.86 million in 2005.

Carried out by Americans for the Arts, the report says that $22.96 million was generated by the organizations themselves and $31.9 million by guests' event-related spending.

"First Thursday's Art Walk is an impressive collaboration between galleries that has evolved as an opportunity to showcase our best cultural assets and celebrate the diversity we offer," Siân Poeschl said in an email. "For an event of three hours, 12 times a year, it is unarguably one of the best year-round events that Laguna offers."

Other cities, such as Los Angeles, have used Laguna Beach as a model in their own Art Walks and even asked Barber for advice.

"What if there was no Art Walk?" Barber asked.

For information about First Thursday's Art Walk and a list of participating galleries, visit firstthursdaysartwalk.com.

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