They come out in the afternoon. Gradually at first, one by one, artists array their tables, canvasses and other displays until the sidewalk on Main Street is humming with activity. All of them—from traditional landscape painters to didgeridoo makers, from handmade jewelry sellers to local bands and performers from Ririe-Woodbury—have made the street their canvas. If you didn’t know better, you might not believe you were in Salt Lake.
“It’s something artists here have been clamoring for,” asserts Lisa Oliver, co-owner of Hardwear Jewelry (artifacts made from hardware) and co-chair of this downtown artists’ showcase called Mainly Art. That’s because it can be hard to find a place to exhibit in the few local galleries that haven’t been hit by hard times and forced to close or restrict their hours, or show by invitation only. Exhibiting art on the street has been fraught with regulations that have severely restricted artistic activity. Artists came together earlier this year as the Mainly Art coalition to try to get city ordinances altered under the banner of free speech.
“Artists should have the opportunity to express themselves, as long as it’s not offensive,” maintains James Torgerson, who makes and sells shamanic walking sticks and drums. He has sold a few pieces but finds that it’s really about making contact with the community.
Landscape painter Bruce Case—who can be seen working on canvas right there on the street creating vistas of the city—concurs. “I’ve met a lot of new people who gave me good critiques on my art, including visitors from out of state,” he says.
Mainly Art actually came out of a meeting of local artists with the mayor in August, according to Gwen Springmeyer, Mayor Rocky Anderson’s community affairs director. “He knew that artists were unhappy with the public art ordinance passed last November,” she says, “and he had a different vision, to make Salt Lake more like other cities, with a more festive atmosphere, to try to draw people downtown.”
The ordinance allowed only six artists per city block and charged a $50 license fee that few artists can afford in a community where art is a hard sell. Those factors would put a chill on the intimate atmosphere of artists and public communing in a vibrant metropolitan setting. The conflict was resolved temporarily by the issuance of a special event permit for a two-block area—the cost of which was donated by the city—to make Mainly Art possible since August.
Tenants of the Crossroads Mall haven’t objected, as long as artists don’t obstruct the entrance to the mall. Mainly Art co-chair Linda Bergstrom has even tried to get panhandlers in the area to make and sell art rather than panhandle. “We’ve tried to have a positive effect on the Crossroad block’s panhandling problem,” she maintains, and it seems to have been relieved somewhat. There haven’t been any complaints from business owners on the 200 South block; moreover, a good number of storefronts on the block remain vacant.
The ordinance’s November sunset clause means it will be open for revision by the City Council soon. If the restrictions are removed, anywhere in Salt Lake can become art street. In the meantime, the season will close with its “Last Blast” on Oct. 25.
“It’ll be family friendly, with an interactive community canvas that anyone can paint on, that we will donate to a building that needs a large artwork,” enthuses Bergstrom. There will also be a community chalk wall, an interactive project with a mosaic artist, and anyone with an acoustic instrument can come and jam.
“Like any other city, we want to bring the street to life,” Bergstrom adds. “We are trying to change the culture.”