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Gallery Night marks 30 years

October 1, 2018

Friday marks two important occasions for Linda Leighton: The 20th anniversary of Higher Fire, her clay studio at 2132 Regent St., and the 30-year mark for Madison’s Fall Gallery Night.

Leighton was among the original organizers of Gallery Night, a twice-a-year-event where galleries and local businesses throw open their doors to celebrate the visual arts. Thousands come to browse a huge array of craft and art works, meet and sometimes watch local artists at work, and just enjoy a free and festive community evening.

Now a citywide event organized each fall and spring by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Gallery Night started as an art walk among a handful of galleries on and around State Street.

For all its three decades, a Gallery Night goal has been “to demystify galleries,” Leighton said — to make the general public feel welcome and comfortable looking at art, with no pressure to buy or to be an expert.

At Higher Fire, for example, “we have a lot of familiar faces” drop by for Gallery Night, she said. “The bonus is that we also get new people in. It’s not a night where you feel like you have to be a shopper or spend money. It’s really a social event.”

Not just galleries

More than 60 venues are participating in the 2018 Fall Gallery Night, held at most spots from 5-9 p.m. Friday. But not all of them are galleries.

Monroe Street Family Dental, for example, has been a Gallery Night stop every year since it opened in 2009, said Amanda Farrow of MSFD’s business operations.

“As a neighborhood dental office, we wanted to support our community and local artists and have been displaying art on our walls ever since,” she said.

Artist Emily Balsley and Edgewood College student Kathleen Coogan will be showing work at the dental office, 2702 Monroe St., during Fall Gallery Night.

Other artists will be showing work in spots ranging from coffee houses and restaurants to Central Library, a real estate office and numerous watering holes. The Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired will show the work of blind or visually impaired artists at 754 Williamson St. from 5-8 p.m. Madison Senior Center at 330 W. Mifflin St. will feature works by local artists ages 55-plus.

Studio Paran, 2051 Winnebago St., has been participating in Gallery Night for about 25 years, said owner Richard Jones.

“I don’t quite remember when we started, but it was when we had moved into our former location two doors down from our current location, down a little alley in the back of what is now DNA studios,” he said in an email.

“We wanted to let locals know we were there, tucked away blowing lots of glass and shipping it all over the country. We are still a bit off the beaten path, and although we maintain a showroom and pretty regular hours, Gallery Night is a great opportunity twice a year for us to present new work and demonstrate to a crowd the craft and art of glassblowing.”

Bringing in young people

The first Gallery Night was put together by a volunteer group known as Art Partners, part of the Madison Art Center, now known as the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Art Partners was made up of younger artists, art fans and young professionals, and charged in part with bringing more young people to the art center, Leighton recalls.

The initial gallery walk was designed to be festive, with street jugglers, horse-drawn wagon rides around the Capitol, and an otherwise lively street scene.

“It ended up being this really beautiful night,” said Jaime Zimmerman, a financial adviser and art lover who was among the Art Partners who helped found Gallery Night. “And it ended up with tons of people. So it was a lot of fun.

“Then it got even more interesting,” he said, “because a lot more galleries said, ‘Well, we want to be involved,’” too.

The organizers did have to grapple with the question “What is art?” Should Gallery Nights include not only established, full-time art venues, but also local businesses that might show art only twice a year?

“There was a bit of a discussion every time” in those early years, Zimmerman said. “But we always defaulted to being more open-minded than closed.”

That’s one of the things that Briony Jean Foy, another original Gallery Night organizer, is most proud of, she said.

“I think it introduced a lot of people to a wider view of what constitutes art,” she said. “The opportunity to see galleries full of jewelry, ceramics, textiles and photography not only helped broaden the definition of art, but also brought new viewers into the museum. In the years since, I think the public’s idea of what constitutes a gallery has also expanded. (That’s) good for everyone.”

Raising awareness

Gallery Night exhibitors pay a fee of $175, which is sometimes covered by the venue or split between the venue and the artist. That fee just covers the costs of the event, including publicity, said MMOCA development officer Kaitlin Kropp, who now coordinates Gallery Night.

The event is not a fundraiser, but meant to “raise awareness” of Madison’s art scene and engage local businesses, she said.

MMOCA, a free-admission museum year-round, will have its doors at 227 State St. open during Gallery Night, with four exhibitions on view and a free, 6:30 p.m. gallery talk by UW-Madison associate professor of art history Michael J. McClure on “Joel Shapiro: The Bronzes.”

MMOCA will also host a Gallery Night After Party from 9-11 p.m. with a DJ, cash bar, snack buffet and hands-on activities. The party is free for MMOCA members; $5 for non-members.

Some of Kropp’s favorite stops during Gallery Night are venues that include demonstrations of artists at work. “It’s a wonderful way for people to understand the process,” she said.

Something lasting

It’s not a stretch to say that Gallery Night can make a huge impact. A few years in, Leighton decided to open her clay studio and gallery. Foy, who was a practicing lawyer during her Art Partners days, is now a full-time studio artist working in fiber arts and ceramics.

“For Linda and me, that group changed our lives,” Foy said of Art Partners. “We both ultimately did what we wanted to do.

“To go to galleries and to talk to some of those people when we were organizing (Gallery Night), and to talk with them about attracting new people, was a great experience,” she said.

As for Gallery Night itself, “It’s been really fun to see how it’s gotten very popular,” said Zimmerman, who rarely misses a Gallery Night.

“It makes you feel good that you did something that’s lasting. It’s gotten to be bigger and better, and there’s a lot of credit due to all the people along the way who got it there.”

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