The Roots of Art Walk

Jim Bjerke

Jim Bjerke

In 1979, Jim Bjerke peered through the windows of the Hardware building on Holly Street, thinking to himself that it would be a great space for an art gallery. Jim loved art from an early age and was a studio art major in college. He was on a motorcycle trip across the Olympic Peninsula, Seattle and up to Bellingham with his wife. Little did he know, he would later have a running art show and art studio in the basement of the Hardware building, and would help start an event that evolved into what is now the monthly Art Walk. After the motorcycle trip, Jim and his wife moved to Bellingham, fell in love with the area and have never looked back.

At about the same time, another man named Wade Marlow (pictured above) began working at a frame shop downtown. Wade eventually bought the shop and started showing local art in the space, under the name Blue Horse Gallery. Around 1981, the Hardware building was remodeled with art studio spaces on the bottom floor. Although the bottom floor had carpet flooring and no water, the owner wanted it to be strictly for the arts. He tried to get The Elements Gallery to move into the space, but was partially unsuccessful. Two members of the gallery thought it was an excellent idea - Jim Bjerke and Jane Burns. The two artists made an agreement with the owner of the building that they could have a running art show if they found tenants for the rest of the studios.

On Saturday nights in 1982, there wasn’t much going on in downtown Bellingham. The streets were quiet, and there were few restaurants open. Jim and Jane decided to get together with the Blue Horse Gallery on Holly Street and the Elements Gallery on Champion Street to find a way to promote the galleries. Wade saw in the paper there was a town having its first gallery walk, and thought it was exactly what the galleries needed. They came up with the idea to have a Gallery Walk to celebrate the simultaneous opening of the three galleries.

“We realized that working alone, we couldn’t generate the traffic we could working together,” Wade said. On Saturday, May 22 1982, the owners hosted the first Gallery Walk. The event was quite the success. Jim remembers serving about 2,500 glasses of champagne that Saturday night. It got good press from the Bellingham Herald, and drew crowds through the three galleries. Since the Gallery Walk did so well, they decided to do it again. It became a quarterly event, and enticed people to come downtown. For the first couple years, Jim Longrich, an artist in the Hardware studios, cut huge footprints out and attached them to the sidewalk to lead people from gallery to gallery. It wasn’t long before a few restaurants joined in, hanging art up on the walls.

Although the galleries kept it going, the restaurants and shops were also seeing the benefits of the event. People were starting to come downtown for the art, but would also go out to dinner, or get a drink. Henderson Books was open for one of the gallery walks, erasing marks in books. He saw a huge increase in sales that night, Jim said. Wade remembers restaurant owners telling him the Gallery Walk nights were their busiest nights. The galleries saw more foot traffic, and the surrounding restaurants and shops saw increased sales.

Jim closed the Bellingham Hardware Gallery in 1984 or 85. He decided to go into commercial real estate, but thinks of his failed business as a good experience for his current career at Pacific Continental Realty. Wade sold the Blue Horse Gallery in 2010, but still participates in the Gallery Walk. He currently volunteers at Sculpture Northwest as the gallery director.

Although it has changed hands and names, the Gallery Walk still runs today. Presently, it is the monthly Art Walk, put on by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. “Thirty-four years,” Jim said. “Not a bad run.” The Art Walk has evolved into a real cultural event in Bellingham where the business community benefits and artists get promotions. It’s something that people look forward to on Friday nights, and put into their schedules.

“We put the Gallery Walk together to raise sales that month,” Jim said. “You just never know what the influence will be.”

The next Art Walk is this Friday, May 6, and it's the Children's Art Walk! Enjoy a beautiful Spring night downtown and enjoy artwork from elementary school students from around Bellingham.

Today's post was written by Kristin Foster, Media Intern.