On Sept. 9, people will fill the streets of Harrisburg across 22 different venues for the city’s 30th annual Gallery Walk.
Paintings, photographs and more will line the walls, but there is one thing you might notice along your long art journey. Hardly any of those art-filled walls will be at traditional galleries.
Harrisburg, unlike, say, Lancaster, has few standalone galleries, and it’s about to lose one of its last as Gallery@Second soon will end its regular exhibit schedule, at least for awhile. Another dedicated gallery, 3rd Street Studio, shut down a few months ago after its building sold.
The quirky thing—there’s plenty of art (and plenty of artists) in Harrisburg. It’s just that the art usually is supported by other, more profitable businesses, be they restaurants (Millworks, Suba, Café 1500, Fresa), cafés (Little Amps, Capital Joe, Yellow Bird) or bars and music venues (Zeroday Brewing Co., HMAC).
The problem: People in Harrisburg love to look at art, but they don’t often buy it, said Carrie Wissler-Thomas, president of the Art Association of Harrisburg.
“It’s very, very difficult for a gallery to exist if all it does is show art,” she said.
That was the case for Ted Walke who owns Gallery@Second. He bought the downtown building and then opened his gallery in May 2010, while juggling a full-time job.
“Most people can’t look at the dollar signs or they get depressed,” Walke said.
People in the community were all easygoing and generous, he added. However, it wasn’t sufficient to bring in enough money. Without a staff, Walke had just four or five weekends free over the past eight years, he said. So, he will close down after the current exhibit ends, take a breather and assess what to do going forward.
He doesn’t envision the building being anything but a gallery, but he wants to direct it toward more contemporary work if and when it does re-open. In the meantime, he’s considering a few pop-up exhibits throughout 2019.
Labor of Love
Gallery Walk is an excellent way to assess the art situation in the city.
Almost none of the locations on the tour are standalone galleries. Instead, destinations along the walk include places such as Penn National Insurance, Salem United Church of Christ and City House Bed & Breakfast.
The Millworks is a good example of a mixed-use space. With art separated from the bar and restaurant, people can opt to go just for dinner or only for the art. Then there are the many people who come for dinner and find their way to the artists’ studios.
That dream of foot traffic is what drew Tara Chickey to the role of art director at the Millworks. She opened a gallery in Harrisburg in 2003 with a friend and closed it around 2011, when her labor of love became a burden and the money didn’t flow through.
“I think it’s hard to make it in a space that is designed for a very small percentage of people,” Chickey said of her former gallery.
The Millworks, on the other hand, caters to a large population of visitors. Chickey said there’s also not the intimidation factor of walking into a white-walled gallery. People can come to eat dinner and simply wander in and out of the artists’ studios.
Another unique art space in Harrisburg is located not in a bar or restaurant, but in a church.
Riverfront Gallery at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Front Street opened in August under the direction of Community Coordinator Lindsay Gottwald.
Gottwald started attending the church last summer around the time of Gallery Walk 2017. The opening hallway of the church was already set up to hang artwork, and she felt that the empty walls were a wasted opportunity. Around the same time, the church’s outreach committee sold a piece of art and talked about adding more.
For Gottwald and St. Stephen’s, it’s not about the money. Twenty percent of the proceeds from sold art go to different community organizations, such as Downtown Daily Bread and the Joshua Group. The other 80 percent goes to the artists.
Gottwald hopes the art at St. Stephen’s will help connect the community with the church. Instead of sales, she just wants people to walk in.
“We just want to be a little bit more part of the neighborhood,” she said.
Walke, Wissler-Thomas and Chickey all agree that one solution to the problem would be connectivity. Gallery Walk is spread out widely, from Shipoke to Midtown to Wildwood Park, making it more of a driving tour than a walking tour.
Using Lancaster as a model, Wissler-Thomas would like to see more retail space, including galleries centralized in one location. Lately, she’s noticed an upsurge of interest in art in the community, especially among young people.
Chickey said that’s one of the nice things about places such as the Millworks.
Patrons who are interested in art get to talk to the artists and learn the story behind what’s hanging on their walls or sitting on their shelves. She’s still fascinated by how many people walk through the doors of the space and get excited to wander around and see the art.
“I think people are starting to see Harrisburg for the gem that it is, but it always has been,” she said.
Gallery Walk 2018 will take place on Sunday, Sept. 9, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., in many locations around Harrisburg. For more information, including a list of venues, visit www.artassocofhbg.com.