First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Lowell’s First Thursdays is an exciting monthly event encouraging visitors downtown to explore shops and museums the first Thursday of each summer month. Born out of a brainstorming session held in April, the monthly event enjoys support from the Council Organization of Lowell (COOL), the City of Lowell, and Lowell National Historical Park. However, the event is at its heart grassroots, making it an interesting example of businesses and museums organizing an event without a formal, supporting organization.

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Artists went head-to-head in a contest that was decided by audience applause. More photos on their facebook page.

Last week was the third “First Thursday,” and from my discussions with folks at a few galleries, the most successful yet. One participating business manager told me that she was beginning to see brand-new clientele at last week’s event. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the first not to be rained upon.

Aurora and I kicked off our Thursday experience by meeting a meetup.com group at the “Our City Live Art Battle,” where artists compete for a chance for $1,000 at the Downtown Arts Fest in Nashua. One artist from Lowell and one from Nashua furiously painted two very different works of art: although each started as abstract fields of color, one slowly morphed into an idyllic scene while the other became even more abstract: a shock of color violently smashing through the painting’s white border.

As we chatted with others from the meetup group, members from Nashua’s Positive Street Art started streetdancing. A few children joined in the dancing and painted at the kids’ art table. Meanwhile, others drifted in and out to catch a glimpse, many of which were passing-by and curious.

Dancers from Positive Street Art in Lowell MA Market Mills

The music and dancers activated the space, encouraging a few onlookers to join in!

After the Art Battle, the Meetup group visited two local galleries: Brush and Zeitgeist. The group was surprised by the secret Zeitgeist holds: a funky vintage clothing shop hidden away, appropriately named the Back Room. I heard some marvel at how varied the subjects and styles were in each gallery.

Three paintings at Brush Gallery Lowell MA

The Brush’s current exhibit is inspired by gardens (photo: Maria)

For those that don’t know, Zeitgesit stays fresh by keeping one side devoted to rotating shows from visiting artists, and maintaining the other side with the latest works from members of their collaborative. I also appreciate its large variety of affordable art, including prints, jewelry, 3″x3″ paintings, t-shirts, mugs, and the like. One can purchase quite a number of unique works for $10 or $20.

As the group explored, we saw artists from Western Avenue Studios/Loading Dock Gallery presenting a travelling art fashion show, wearing art clothing and carrying signs encouraging onlookers to “ask about what I’m wearing.” I hate to say, we didn’t ask, but we enjoyed looking! The meetup.com group finished the night at Athenian Corner, although by then, Aurora and I had to leave.

Building Toward a Big Picture

I noticed a great number of folks going through the galleries and walking down the cobblestone streets: a compliment to other downtown events, from painting at Tutto Bene or the outdoor music of Athenian Corner. This highlighted for me the way each month must build upon the last, as Aurora and I attended a previous First Thursday that did not seem to reach its potential, even taking the rain into account. For example, shops advertising promotions closed hours before the event’s 9 pm end time, and I heard the musicians at Whistler House had sparse audiences. However, August’s event was much livelier, everything was as advertised, and I imagine September’s will be even busier.

Mary Hart, who was instrumental in kicking off First Thursdays (link to Lowell Sun), was kind enough to give me some inside information about the event. She agreed, “We have had mixed success in attracting crowds, but we seem to be building.” I believe it is critical that every participating business and museum stay open the extra hours, keep the sale going, and keep participating. It was personally quite disappointing to find sales ended or businesses closed, and I imagine that others finding closed doors might not come back. I think the larger story, however, is that a handful of folks who enjoyed the early events despite the rain are helping to build buzz and each month brings more visitors.

This seems to serve as a good lesson for similarly recurring events, as it might be easy to be discouraged, especially when weather doesn’t cooperate. However, momentum may very well be building. Notably, I haven’t found this type of advice anywhere in downtown revitalization guides, and I believe it deserves further study.

What’s the Goal?

An interesting question is one posed by the National Trust’s Main Street Center:

Before you create any special event as a part of a campaign, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this event? Which of the largest market segments will the event attract?

The folks from the meetup group were from many places: Lowell, the immediate suburbs, and even New Hampshire. Is this the target market the event attracts? Ms. Hart revealed that the group behind First Thursdays hoped to adopt monthly “open galleries” events that other cities (including Worcester and Boston) organize to entice downtown employees to linger after work and leverage convenient evening hours and proximity of museums and galleries, attracting outside visitors. Goals included:

  1. Attract more visitors to [the group’s] sites
  2. Encourage longer visits including meals and purchases from downtown businesses
  3. Build a loyal following and establish as a regular event

With that in mind, I wonder where the “downtown employee” and “outside visitor” markets could be even better reached and what businesses critical to those markets might be being left out. I pondered this while watching the Art Battle, realizing the only thing that could have made the event better was if it were in an area with more foot traffic, perhaps catching folks that walk to and from the Leo Roy (Market Street) garage, capturing people going home from work who might not be tuned in to any Lowell media. They may ignore a banner, but they certainly won’t ignore a group watching artists speed-paint against one another!

This also builds buzz, as mentioned before: perhaps the passer-bys don’t stay that day, but they’ll make it to the next one: once again, using each event to build momentum on the next.

A Jump-Started Test Drive

Ms. Hart explained that this was a “test drive” of a monthly cultural night. After the first discussion with artists and gallery people, downtown museums and the National Park were invited to a meeting to discuss the possibility. Twelve groups were represented at that meeting. I understand the group chose Thursday to avoid conflicts with existing weekend events.

Ultimately, participants agreed to share work of creating themes, maps, and schedules and pay a nominal fee to cover printing costs. The group accomplished nearly all its advertising through social media, with each participant doing the work to market the event. The group chose venues specifically to minimize expense and the need for city permits. In addition, the organizer accomplished business outreach by visiting each door-to-door. Ultimately, the level of activity in such a short time is among the most exciting elements of the effort:

What we have achieved, and this is the best part, is to identify and gather a core of committed people willing to get something started without grant money, extensive proposals or endless meetings! -Mary Hart, Artist & Event Organizer

This means that not only does each event, even rainy events, build buzz, but they also provide a learning opportunity for the next event.

What’s Next?

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Immediately next is Thursday, September 4. In Ms. Hart’s words, “an opportunity to gather and celebrate the richness and excitement of our institutions.” Information will be posted on COOL’s website as soon as it is available. The First Thursdays group will soon discuss and vote upon next steps after September; the event may continue in a different form over the winter or may be summer-only. Ms. Hart mentioned the regardless need to identify ways to advertise outside social media.

In addition, Fresh Air Fridays will continue through August: artist markets, the Lowell Farmers Market, and street performers all complementing the Lowell Summer Music Series.

For me, these events beg a question: is it better to cast a wide net or tailor an event to a specific group? I could imagine a complimentary monthly event designed to attract families with young children or University Students. If each week, a different event could play downtown’s strengths to a person with different interests? Even better! I truly believe Lowell has enough talented, creative folks to support it.

Kids' painting table at Art Battle.

Kids’ painting table at Art Battle.

Judging the finished pieces

Judging the finished pieces

Loading Dock Gallery Artists at Visitor Center

Loading Dock Gallery had a travelling fashion show: artists had a table at the National Park Visitor Center and walked in the outfits with signs “ask me about what I’m wearing.”

Sunset at Ayers Loft Gallery Lowell

A gorgeous sunset capped a perfect evening out

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