The quiet little town of Salida (population 5,500), in the Arkansas Valley, suffers a major art attack every year on the third weekend in June, when the Salida Art Walk literally takes over the town.
"All the galleries are open, of course, but just about every business downtown -- real estate offices, the bank, everywhere -- also has art on display," explains Barbara Flynn, owner of Moose Mountain Studio and coordinator of this year's walk, the ninth, held June 22-24. In addition to exhibiting art, many venues are holding special events, from the kick-off party at Bongo Billy's Salida Cafe on Friday evening to the Edible Art Contest at Storyville Cinema and Nightspot on Sunday afternoon.
Although there are no statistics on actual attendance at Art Walk, Renee Elvenheart of the Heart of the Rockies Chamber of Commerce says, "For three days, the town is packed. The weekend before Art Walk is always FiBARK -- that stands for First in Boating on the Arkansas -- which features a 26-mile kayak race. More and more people are deciding to come down for FiBARK and stay for Art Walk."
She adds that in the past three years, especially, Heart of the Rockies has been getting inquiries about Art Walk from all over the country. Salida has been called one of the "100 Best Small Art Towns in America" by critic John Villani and Art Walk the "Best Annual Festival Dedicated to Art" this year by Westword; the town was recently compared -- favorably -- to Santa Fe.
The first Art Walk was a much more modest affair, designed to bring residents into a handful of galleries in the newly renovated downtown historic district, a neighborhood sorely in need of redevelopment. Salida had once been a booming mining and railroad town in the Arkansas Valley. But a century after its founding, with the Climax Mine closed and the trains no longer stopping before tackling the Continental Divide, it seemed to be on its last legs.
"What saved this whole area after the mine played out in the 1980s was rafting on the Arkansas River," according to Elvenheart. "And what rafting did for the area, which was bring in visitors who then discovered the great hiking, camping and mountain biking available, the arts community did for downtown Salida. The artists restored the historic buildings and opened galleries, which attracted others who opened small businesses like bed-and-breakfast inns, and it just grew into the complete revitalization of the district."
Leigh Mills, performance artist and member/owner of the Off the Beaten Path Fine Art Gallery, discovered Salida in 1988, when most of the historic buildings were empty. Still impressed by the "magnificent energy" of the place and the people, she returned two years later. Like Flynn, she was attracted by the base of artists occupying very affordable spaces in the old downtown.
"We opened Moose Mountain about two years ago, and since then, art has just blossomed even more," says Flynn. "It feels like we're part of the wave."
As the older businesses moved out of the historic district, galleries and bed-and-breakfasts took their place. Flynn estimates that since her gallery opened, three more have sprung up and four more are on the way.
Art Walk grew along with the community of artists. The historic district now covers approximately ten downtown blocks, and that includes 48 different venues for art, ranging from galleries such as those run by Flynn and Mills to the Headwaters Outdoor Equipment Shop and Nails by Di.
"There's a lot more going on this year," Flynn says. "We really do have something for everyone."
Music and the performing arts are also a big part of Art Walk. At the kick-off party, artists will be painting to the sounds of the band Friends of Your Mother, with the paintings sold at the patron thank-you dinner. The Salida Steam Plant Cultural Arts Center and Sculpture Garden will host the third annual Performing Art Walk, mini-performances taking place throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, while local authors read their prose and poetry works on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
For the first time, Art Walk also features Youth Fest, which displays art by young artists at the Steam Plant. For three weekends before Art Walk, local youth also have the chance to decorate downtown sidewalks with chalk creations. Saturday night, the artists will be on hand for gallery receptions; in and around it all, Mills's troupe of thirty wandering performers known as MUD will stage impromptu performance pieces.
Accommodations in the Salida area range from the local B&Bs to hotels, motels and campgrounds, making it easy to make an entire weekend of Art Walk.
As Mills says, "Art Walk is an awesome event for the community. I love the people here, and I love that Salida is a funky little town. I just hope it stays a funky little town."