GULFPORT — One of the city's most recognizable events, the twice-monthly Art Walk, marks its 20th anniversary Friday. City officials will highlight the event with a celebration at 7:30 p.m. at Mangia Gourmet.
The first Art Walk was Nov. 5, 1993, and represented a collaboration between the owners of six new galleries in Gulfport who were looking to generate some publicity for their businesses.
"Back then, we were clustered at the north end of Beach Boulevard, nearer the library," said Roger Turner, one of the city's original gallery owners. "That was the only space available, so that's where we opened our galleries. Downtown Gulfport was much different then. I think there were only three restaurants at the south end of Beach Boulevard, along with a hair salon, a few bars and the Beach Bazaar."
Hoping to generate interest in the galleries and get folks to the other end of Beach Boulevard, Turner got each of the galleries to chip in $10 for a half-page ad in the local weekly promoting the event. "A lot of people came," he said.
"With a steady stream of visitors and our jugs of wine, we felt like a big-time art district,'' Turner said. "I wish I could tell you that sales were great, but they weren't. Still, we felt pretty good about what we were creating."
Six months later, Gulfport's Gallery Walk hit the big time. A full-page article by the art critic for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) resulted in a crowd so large that lines formed outside each of the galleries.
"We were astounded,'' Turner said. "Folks came from out of town; they weren't just local residents or seasonal visitors.
"That really put us on the map. And there's been an Art Walk every month ever since."
In 1999, a Saturday Night Stroll was added to the city's arts calendar and, as the number of galleries ebbed and flowed, the walks expanded to include outdoor exhibits by both local and visiting artists.
Twenty years since the first Art Walk, none of the original galleries remain, and only two of the original owners have made Gulfport their home. Turner is one of them. He still creates stained glass from a studio space in town, though he admits there's less of a market for it than there once was.
Today, the twice-monthly arts event occupies much of the south end of Beach Boulevard, where street vendors, craftsmen and musicians promote their talents, and restaurants cater to visitors. Even with the changes, Turner is pleased with what they started two decades ago.
"Before the Art Walks, things were pretty quiet in Gulfport. I feel like our little group of gallery owners kind of kick-started the street," he said. "We got people to pay attention to what we were doing down here."
Diane Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.