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Artwalk and the renaissance of downtown Birmingham

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The 17th Annual Artwalk was held over the weekend of September 7,8 2019 in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. (The Birmingham Times / Frank Couch )
By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times

Add Birmingham Artwalk to the list of places and events that have helped revitalize the city. Railroad Park, Regions Field, lofts, and new businesses are often cited as indication of the downtown renaissance, but the annual arts festival held the weekend after Labor Day on Morris Avenue and First Avenue and Second Avenue North deserves some credit.

“We’re not the total story of revitalization in this district, but we did help bring people to discover the buildings, the architecture, … a lot of empty spaces that are now destinations for the community,” said Artwalk Co-Director Joy Myers. “In the beginning, Second Avenue North was just completely empty. … [Now] that’s one of the hottest spots during the festival.”

Artwalk transforms Birmingham’s loft neighborhood into an arts district, featuring the work of more than 100 visual artists, live musicians, and street performers, as well as food and drink vendors and children’s activities. The festival recently wrapped its 17th year, and the growth is noticeable.

“There were very few restaurants, very few bars for people to come to [downtown],” Myers said. “That was half of the mission: to showcase artists; the other half was to showcase the neighborhood.”

The event has not only attracted people but also has gotten some to stay—including Myers.

“I moved to Birmingham in 2000 [from Huntsville, Ala.], not with the expectation to stay,” she said. “I had ambitions of living in a big city where I would have lots of opportunities and entertainment. When I was asked to volunteer for Artwalk, I saw how cool it was. … I wanted to get involved in those early years and see myself making a difference. It’s one of the reasons we’re still here.”

Heather Holmes, hostess for the Artwalk Young Artists Showcase, has also seen the growth.

“When it [the festival] first started, none of this [on Second Avenue North] was here,” she said. “The buildings were here, but none of the businesses were. … To see that progress over the years—from it being a ghost town after 5 p.m. to this; … where 10 years prior [people] would have never stepped foot downtown—the changes from last year to this year on Morris Avenue are incredible.”

Affordable Art

And then there’s the art, which is affordable.

“You can come out here with $5 and buy a print of a piece of original work from an artist that you actually get to meet,” Myers said. “We have $1,000 paintings, as well. There’s something for everybody’s budget. It’s a free event, so you can come out, hear the music, and see everything.”

What began as a festival that drew artists from Birmingham now attracts both regional and local artists and more diverse participants. This year’s featured artist was Tenisha Artes Hicks, the first African-American to hold the title at the event; she provided the artwork for the festival T-shirts, posters, and advertisements.

“Each year we work with a different artist. It’s a benefit for them to get exposure through Artwalk’s marketing, but it’s also a benefit for us to have a dynamic piece of artwork to market our show,” Myers said. “Instead of doing something generic or commercial, we work with that artist. They get recognition and admission into the [festival] for free.”

Artwalk is also a venue for emerging artists, many of whom will display at their first art show. “That’s always been a big thing for young artists—getting their artwork out there,” Myers said.

It’s also become a platform for area high school students. Holmes said the Young Artists Showcase, now in its second year, gives high school students a chance show their talent. More than 30 students from six high schools—Ramsay, Woodlawn, George Washington Carver, Wenonah, Shades Valley, and the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—displayed their work at the Parthenon on Second Avenue North during the fest. The event was important enough that Artwalk absorbed the costs.

“I’m hoping next year to write a proposal and get a sponsor,” Holmes said, “We paid for the building rental, and there is no fee for the schools.”

Click here to read more about Birmingham Artists to watch; Amber; Chris; Erin; Lillie.