It wasn’t that long ago that 2nd Avenue N. was a pretty desolate place.
Before the street that Big calls home became a street that visitors sought out, it was, save for a few businesses, pretty empty.
But back in the day — like the 2001 day — a small group of people saw what this neighborhood could be.
The founders of Artwalk aren’t the only ones that helped turn this part of downtown around, but they were key players in casting a vision for what our downtown could be, with the arts right at the center. Each year, 10,000 to 15,000 people attend Artwalk, which features more than 100 artists, musicians, and street performers, with plenty of children’s activities along the way.
Big and Artwalk have been connected for years. We designed the logo that they still use, and our president John Montgomery has championed them from the start. So in honor of Artwalk’s 15th year (September 9-10), we sat down with Executive Director Joy Myers for her perspective on how the event and the city have evolved.
Tell us a bit about your perspective of Birmingham in 2001.
My husband Matthew and I moved here in 2000. We got to know a number of people who had helped this area move ahead. Vero Vanblaere had opened Naked Art and there were openings at Space 111, as well as a few longstanding businesses, like Lindsey Office Furnishings. But there were a lot of empty buildings in the Loft District, and everything closed up at night and on weekends.
My husband had moved to Alabama from Manhattan, so he was used to a city feel, but fell in love with the South. We wanted to have more of a city vibe in Birmingham, the feel of having hundreds of people shift past you as you’re going in and out of restaurants.
How did Artwalk begin? How did you get involved?
Artwalk was founded by Vero and Robert Emerick of Operation New Birmingham (which became REV Birmingham). They wanted to get people down here to see these spaces and to showcase local and regional artists. Artwalk has always had that dual mission — to showcase this neighborhood and to give artists an opportunity to connect with the public.
My background was in public relations, and I started as a volunteer. I cut my professional teeth on Artwalk and have hung around ever since.
Tell us about the evolution of Artwalk and how it’s linked with the city’s redevelopment.
We’ve always tried to program Artwalk to have a New Orleans feel, where people could see performance artists in the street and duck into empty spaces to see art and interact with the creators. There was a time where I’d program fire dancers and parades just to get people to walk on 2nd Avenue, to see what it would be like with people here.
About midway through Artwalk’s history, we started running out of inside spaces to host artists. This was a good problem to have, because more businesses were opening up, and more people were moving downtown. So we started using parking lots as well. In recent years, we’ve had to be creative when those spaces are occupied by construction — again, a good problem to have.
Fast-forward 15 years and Birmingham is becoming the city that many people envisioned back then because of the work of a lot of people and organizations. Now there are multiple options any given weekend. People come to this neighborhood to eat, to do business, and to live.
What is Artwalk’s role in Birmingham’s artistic community?
Inspired by Vero’s mission at Naked Art, we’ve designed the event to make art accessible to all. We make sure there are venues and spaces to allow our awesome artists to showcase their work. We have people for whom this is their first show — maybe they aren’t young in age, but they are young in their arts career. We also have other artists with a very loyal following and attendees who come year after year to search out new pieces from these artists.
Some of our artists have been showing in the same space for many years, like Paul Cordes Wilm and Chad Moore, who show in the Weld space. I can’t always put people in the same location — businesses open and close and spaces change — but I’m very mindful about where we place everyone.
As Artwalk’s Executive Director, you’ve seen a new generation get involved with championing our city, through Artwalk and other events. Can you speak to that?
I love the young, new talent that is coming up and how they are making things happen. It’s been great to interact with and watch people like Deon Gordon, who volunteered when he started getting involved in our city. He’s still on our board and has gone on to do amazing things for Birmingham and for its young entrepreneurs.
At age 15, what does the future have in store for Artwalk?
People ask, “have you accomplished your mission?” Would you expand to other parts of the city? Our plan is to continue doing what we’ve always done — to host this free event that makes art accessible in this neighborhood, and that brings people from all over for the weekend.
We are a small organization and rely on our volunteers, and we’re purposeful about not being bigger than we are or stretching ourselves too far. We are a neighborhood event with many of our sponsors and volunteers living and working in this area. And we want to keep doing that. We’re not finished.
15 years is definitely a milestone, but the winner I think is Birmingham.