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First Fridays Artswalk energizes downtown Pittsfield

Photographer Drew Finn showed a collection of his work entitled “Stops Along the Path” at The Marketplace Cafe in Pittsfield in March.

Lisa Leavitt for the Boston Globe

Photographer Drew Finn showed a collection of his work entitled “Stops Along the Path” at The Marketplace Cafe in Pittsfield in March.

PITTSFIELD — It’s late on Friday afternoon and a small crowd has gathered at Mary’s Carrot Cake on Union Street. Today Mary McGinnis’s 27-ingredient carrot cake and addictive red velvet cupcakes take second billing to the art of Jackie Kearns, 26. The University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate is presenting a show of her latest works at the store. Kearns’s unpopulated street scenes, created with a hazy charcoal and oil mix, evoke a feeling of mystery, especially when painted on objects such as chairs, a bookshelf, and curtains. The pieces are on the floor and on walls around the room, one painting hanging atop a display case of cakes, cupcakes, and other goodies.

When the 17 artists working in studio spaces above McGinnis’s bake shop approached her with the idea of presenting their work in her store, she embraced the idea and renamed that section of the shop Gallery 25. Then McGinnis took it a step further. Having heard about art walks around the country, she wanted to create one downtown. Except there was one big difference. Those other cities had art galleries to showcase artists’ wares. Except for the Ferrin Gallery, Berkshire Community College’s Intermodal Gallery, and the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, there wasn’t much traditional gallery space in Pittsfield.

Artwalk co-founder Mary McGinnis talked about her whimsical children's books.

Lisa Leavitt for the Boston Globe

Artwalk co-founder Mary McGinnis talked about her whimsical children's books.

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That didn’t stop McGinnis. One of eight children brought up here, she had seen the steady decline of a city that had relied heavily on General Electric for jobs. After the company pulled out in the ’80s, downtown was littered with vacant buildings and became the object of ridicule from its far more manicured neighbors to the south and north, Lenox and Williamstown.

Where others saw despair, artists saw opportunity. In 2002, local artist Maggie Mailer, the daughter of author Norman Mailer, founded the Storefront Artists Project, converting vacant retail space into artists’ studios. Backed by Pittsfield’s mayor at the time, James Ruberto, and Megan Whilden, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Development, a new arts district started to take root. In 2006, the long dormant Colonial Theatre, an epic Vaudevillian stage that first made its debut in 1903, reopened to much fanfare. That same summer, the Barrington Stage Company moved to town and made the 1912 Music Hall its new home.

Slowly, empty storefronts on North Street, the main commercial artery downtown, transformed into restaurants, health food stores, and a new movie theater, The Beacon Cinema. They weren’t art galleries, but they had walls where you could hang works by artists who were now living and working in the city. So McGinnis went door to door, asking store and restaurant owners to stay open the first Friday night of every month to showcase the artists’ works. More than 20 signed up and last May First Fridays Artswalk made its debut. So far, it’s been a smashing success.

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“The event has brought in well over $250,000 worth of sales of art and commerce,” says McGinnis. By merging art with local businesses, she has made believers out of store owners like Steven Valenti, a purveyor of quality men’s suits, dress shirts, sweaters, and shoes who’s celebrating his 30th anniversary on North Street this year.

“It’s been quite a roller coaster ride. Over the past five years, I’ve seen a resurgence in downtown. I’m glad I stuck around,” says Valenti. At first reluctant, he was swayed by McGinnis’s passion for the project and impressed by the work of a local artist and curator, Sean McCusker, who matches the right artist to the right space and then arranges the exhibition. One artist Valenti’s store presented was his former art history professor.

“I saw classmates I haven’t seen in 40 years,” says Valenti, adding that he’s welcomed over 100 people to his store on certain First Fridays, including many new customers who were happy to make a purchase simply because he’s supportive of the arts.

“We had this one guy come up from New York solely for the Artswalk. He ended up buying over $700 worth of merchandise and then called me two days later to tell me what a grand time he and his wife had,” adds Valenti.

The art also flies off the walls. When photographer Susan Geller had her show at Gallery 25 in October, she sold seven works and met Dr. Ruth, who was performing at the Barrington Stage Company across the street.

Not content with simply founding the First Fridays Artswalk, McGinnis leads a free tour every month. This month the first stop is Wild Sage, an antiques store that showcased the postcard-sized works of Ellen Joffe-Halpern. It took the artist three years to complete 365 of these attractive pint-sized watercolors, depicting everyday life, from the tilt of a coffee cup to the ticking of a clock.

At the Berkshire Community College Intermodal Gallery, housed in the Pittsfield bus station, painter Don Orcutt presents recent works that he likes to describe as “surrealism with a John Cleese attitude.” Inspired by artists Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, many of Orcutt’s oils have a whimsical side, like “The Emperor’s New Head,” where a large head is afloat in a medieval-like parade.

Photographer Drew Finn, whose crisp images can be found at The Marketplace Cafe, takes inspiration from Italy, such as the enchanting alleyways and cemeteries of Milan. Closer to home, morning sunlight pours onto a dense forest in Dalton, in a wondrous photo called “Wonderland,” illuminating the verdant backdrop of ferns, trees, and a rushing creek.

Landscape artist Marion Grant, whose works can be seen at the Kinderhook Real Estate office in Crawford Square, uses her Richmond farm as a muse for her oil paintings. The velvety green fields of grass and rolled hay easily seduce.

With Artswalk having made a huge impact on the local economy in less than a year, it’s not surprising that other communities are taking a good look at McGinnis’s prototype. She is hard at work on a business model that cities can emulate. She is also quick to point out that it took far more effort than her own to ensure that First Fridays Artwalk would not only come to fruition but also succeed.

“An idea is just an idea until it’s put into action. Once born, it can only flourish under the watchful eye of many,” says McGinnis.

Dining on tapas and listening to live jazz at Mission Bar and Tapas after my night of seeing art, I wanted to thank McGinnis for her artful activism and a fun night out in Pittsfield.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.
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