First Friday ArtWalk — Celebrating 20 Years
November 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of First Friday ArtWalk. In its two-decade history, this monthly event has been a galvanizing force when it comes to raising awareness of what Downtown Knoxville has to offer local residents and visitors alike.
It dates back to 2003, when a handful of retail shop owners and artisans joined forces to let the city know that downtown was more than just banks and attorneys’ offices. Their objective was to send the message that other downtown businesses were thriving and were worth stopping by for a closer look.
The effort was initiated by the late Emily Dewhirst, a weaver with a studio on Market Square. Also involved in the early going were Julie Belcher, then with Yee-Haw Industries; and Scott Schimmel, proprietor of Bliss, which was then based on Market Square as well.
“Emily was adamant about getting people downtown and making sure it was understood that there were artists and other media here,” says Schimmel. “Preston Farabow [metal-work artist] was the first person doing something on first Fridays on a regular basis prior to 2003, but we felt it was important to grow that and get more people involved.”
Schimmel recalls only six to eight businesses taking part in that first art walk but that the number of participants grew steadily each month. While any business was welcome to open its doors on a First Friday, most were art galleries, retailers and restaurants. Organizers encouraged local musicians to play in front of or inside participating shops.
The physical state of downtown in the early 2000s made efforts challenging for organizers. Sidewalks were missing on the 100 block, and sections of Market Square were restricted by chain-link fences. Pedestrians sometimes had to traverse pits of mud and water via wooden planking. But the host shops and galleries persevered.
Gaining traction in those early years was slow work, and it took a focused, concerted effort. But 20 years later, participating businesses are enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“First Fridays have played a pivotal role in increasing awareness of our business,” says Nanci Solomon, owner of Rala (a local retail shop specializing in supporting regional and local artists) and an early participant in First Friday walks.
Schimmel agrees that the monthly events had a direct impact on his business. “First Fridays were always fantastic for us,” he says. “Downtown was the only place where you could walk from venue to venue and experience what we were showcasing.”
Liza Zenni, executive director of the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, notes that now during a typical First Friday ArtWalk, it’s rare for fewer than 2,500 visitors to make their way through the Emporium Center in the 100 block of Gay Street, where the Alliance is based. And that's just between the hours of 5 and 9 p.m.
Says Solomon, “The ArtWalk has positively impacted Knoxville’s art scene by promoting local artists, boosting the economy, fostering community engagement with the arts and inspiring creativity.”
Further evidence of how the artistic community has benefited came this year from USA Today. The newspaper’s 10Best Readers’ Choice poll for 2023 cited Knoxville as having the number-four Best Arts District nationwide. The city was among 20 nominees, all evaluated on how their arts districts culturally enriched their cities and those who visit them. Other top cities included Minneapolis, Cleveland and Dallas.
But one shouldn’t overlook the ArtWalks’ contributions to the proliferation of the entire downtown Knoxville footprint.
“The event initially attracted people to downtown, and as they discovered the unique offerings here, they began returning on other occasions,” Solomon adds. “This led to a trend of more people choosing to live downtown, and out-of-town visitors started seeing it as a destination beyond UT football weekends.”
“Early on, First Fridays were a huge driver for sales and for getting people downtown on that particular night,” he says. “But as other businesses started to open, downtown has become more of a draw overall. First Friday was a singular event, but at some point, more things started to happen.”
While it’s hard to argue the sheer economic impact First Friday has had on its participants and on downtown as a whole, it may be its intangible effects that have fostered a deeper sense of community among all who find themselves in the heart of the city, whether it’s on the first Friday night of the month or on a typical weekday.
“Getting outside and walking around and being around other people is essential to being part of the human race,” Zenni says. “ArtWalks are passive, but they’re also interactive. You’re looking at something that’s interesting to you, and someone next to you may exchange a few words about it. All of a sudden, someone who may have started their evening feeling like a lone wolf may feel like an embraced part of the community.”
Whether you’re an ArtWalk regular or you’ve never made a point of visiting downtown on the first Friday of the month, plenty of opportunities still await. Upcoming event dates include every first Friday of every month—rain or shine. To learn more, visit downtownknoxville.org/artwalk. And to see what's happening this month, visit downtownknoxville.org/artwalk/events.