Squabble on Cobble

Galleries say street artists are mobbing First Thursday. The city's solution: regulation.

THE PIONEER SQUARE Gallery and Art Walk, a 23-year tradition, has gotten too big, and complaints from gallery owners have forced the city of Seattle to regulate the event, held the first Thursday of every month. Record-breaking summer weather brought an unprecedented number of artists and art-lookers to the Occidental Mall in Pioneer Square this year, jamming the cobbled right-of-way between South Jackson Street and Main Street and setting the stage for trouble.

Pioneer Square gallery owner Richard Thurston filed a formal complaint following the June 5 "First Thursday," saying he was unable to access his own gallery because street artists blocked the entrance. Other gallery owners tell tales of artists displaying their inexpensive pieces in gallery flower boxes. According to city employees who were monitoring the event, more than 150 independent artistslicensed and notsold goods during that event. "Last year, Seattle police tried to work with business owners to better manage the event and move the vendors," says Laine Ross, owner of the Animation USA gallery. "This year it turned into a flea market."

As a result, in July the city got involved and conducted meetings with members of the Pioneer Square Community Association, gallery owners, and independent artists and decided that the best solution was to move artists selling and displaying their work across the street to Occidental Park, an area overrun by the indigent community. "Occidental Park is no-man's land, all dark and weird," laments David Young, one of the independent artists who had to move to the new location last summer. "First Thursday was lucrative because I was making as much as $375 during a three-hour night," says Young, the owner of Faux Post. "But in August my sales were down about 10 to 15 percent, and I had a low comfort level."

OTHER ARTISTS don't mind the move. "I like being out there near the trees and being able to spread out a little bit," says Sable Jak, who makes hand-painted cards. "Even the low lighting has forced artists to get creative with flashlights."

What does concern Jak and others is the amount of regulation the city is imposing on a spontaneous and free-form event. A draft plan slated for release this week by the city's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, in conjunction with the Parks and Recreation Department and the Office of Economic Development, would require arts vendors to have a valid city business license, pay a nominal fee, and give the city 10 percent of their gross revenue for using the public space for a private purpose. In addition, the city is trying to find a third-party organization to shepherd the event by purchasing the necessary permit, managing the event, and collecting the fees from the artists. "Having a third-party group involved is like communismit works well on paper," Jak says, afraid the spirit of First Thursday Art Walk will be lost.

Sarah McQuaide is a mechanical engineer at the University of Washington who does not rely on Art Walk for her livelihood but will no longer sell her handmade clocks at an the event she says is "becoming too commercialized." During the summer, McQuaide sold her clocks next to a pair of 5-year-old girls who sold paintings for $1 and became the darlings of the event. She doubts that they will be back if there is an entrance fee, which under the plan would range from $7 to $18 per month.

According to Steve Johnson of the Office of Economic Development, the city is willing to be the heavy. "I hope that if we can make the hard decisions, we can take the blows and the momentum will allow this event to stabilize, so we can reassess it in a year," he says.

THE CITY'S multifaceted and multifaced approach to the issue has officials patting themselves on the back. But artists are up in arms about the proposed regulations. Gallery owners, meanwhile, just want the Art Walk to choose a different day. Neither group thinks the city is listening.

"We are really offended by the way this was handled," says Greg Kucera, owner of the Kucera Gallery and one of the founders of Gallery Walk. He would like to see the Art Walk moved to Sundays, when artists could take advantage of summer cruise-ship business. "It would be a stronger event and on a day when the city could take an ugly situation and make it better," he adds.

The artists, many of whom rely on the extra money that Art Walk provides to pay rent or bills, consider the sudden need to regulate the event a ploy to get more money out of people who have little. Counters Karen Bystrom, a spokesperson for the city's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs: "It was a public safety issue."

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