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Not crawling around: Art event reaches 15th year

Local artists have been instrumental in making it a success

Feb. 28, 2012

Jeff Seymour is pretty good at jumpstarting a lot of innovating ideas around here.

It was his initial curiosity that put Waukesha on the map in becoming the latest Gibson GuitarTown city.

But Seymour's affect on Waukesha goes beyond the guitar project. In fact, without him, downtown Waukesha might have a completely different look.

It started 17 years ago when Seymour was driving around Waukesha after an interview at Carroll University.

He noticed something missing downtown.

"I made my way downtown and thought that it was really cool, but I didn't see any galleries and I couldn't believe it," Seymour recalled.

So Seymour purchased two properties - one at 378 W. Main St. (Sprizzo Gallery Caffe, now Simon Artisan Lofts) and one at 400 W. Main St. (Studio 400, now Spontaneous Gallery). To get more people to come to his shops, he came up with the idea of a Fall Crawl in 1997.

"It was originally a promotion for my restaurant and (I) was hoping to attract within the building as a way to start and develop an art community," Seymour said. "I personally invited 250 people trying to get customers, my friends and family.

"But 500 people showed up. People were really excited and there was great energy. It was two buildings. That was it."

Things started changing downtown as more artists made their homes downtown. Seymour said today there are about 150 artists and 22 galleries downtown.

As the art galleries grew, the Fall Crawl turned into multiple annual art crawls throughout the year.

This weekend marks the beginning of the 15th year of the art crawls and Saturday's event is the 70th one. There will also be four more art crawls scheduled for the rest of the year: May 5, Aug. 4, Oct. 6 and Dec. 1.

From 4 to 10 p.m. artists/art lovers will flock to downtown, live music will take place and local restaurants will offer discounts. In addition to all the galleries, there will be a new photography exhibit by the Spring City Photographers from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday at City Hall.

Lynn Gaffey, owner of Almont Gallery and one of the city's longtime advocates of the arts, has helped promote the art crawls with Seymour over the years.

"It was the art crawl that started the resurgence of downtown Waukesha," said Gaffey. "It's amazing that it has been 70 (art crawls)."

Seymour notes that Gaffey and others such as Joan Skimmons, the owner of River's End Gallery, should be given just as much credit for helping downtown become what it is today.

"I'm pleased so many people have gotten involved," Seymour said. "I may have started it, but it's certainly the involvement of everybody that has made it a success. It's not one or two people. It's the people who came and it's a community effort. That's why it's been successful.

"If a community doesn't support it, it won't go on. But this community has been tremendously supportive."

Still, it took time.

Businesses needed to know that downtown Waukesha was really a place that they wanted to invest in and that people would come if they relocated to Waukesha. Seymour said this was the case with Taylors People’s Park.

“The Taylors from Milwaukee needed to see evidence that there was considerable activity,” Seymour said. “When I opened Sprizzos we didn’t have the crowds, but things changed. It’s tremendous when you can park and walk. You can’t do that in Milwaukee. That’s part of the success of our downtown. It’s an intimate setting.”

Now, Taylors People’s Park is this weekend’s sponsor for the art crawl.

Having an event like this allows for traffic in the downtown area, which in turn, should translate to better business for all involved, whether that is at the restaurants or the bars, Seymour said.

And having the art crawl on one day instead of over multiple days has also helped in its longevity.

“We have tried it different times and over the course of several days and it wasn’t as successful,” he said. “It didn’t have the same energy. With the limited amount of hours, there’s great energy when they come.”

Seymour believes the art crawls also helped change the overall perception of downtown.

“I believe it did,” Seymour said. “People lost their fear because there was a certain fear. Before I came here, I investigated and there was actually low crime, but the perception here was that it wasn’t safe.

“But when the art crawls started, people came downtown and then young people came. It helped people realize it’s a cool place to visit.”

As people began showing up, more businesses began popping up as did more restaurants and events such as Friday Night Live.

And art groups such as the West End Artists formed as a way to enhance Waukesha’s image.

Gaffey has been side by side with Seymour since the beginning and the two currently serve as the co-chairs of the West End Artists.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Gaffey said. “It hasn’t been one person. City Hall has been cooperative as has the Downtown Business Association, the BID (Waukesha’s Business Improvement District) and all the different merchants.”

Just as they have been every year, Seymour and Gaffey will be there this weekend.

Seymour estimates that he has been to all but one of the 70 art crawls and has had a hand in every one of them as has Gaffey.

“It’s been a lot of fun and very rewarding to see the community come alive with great energy,” Seymour said.

The fact that downtown is buzzing over Waukesha being named a Gibson GuitarTown city, could help in adding more energy to the art crawls, Seymour said.

“I think the buzz that the Gibson project has created has been special and you may see some artists working on the guitars during the art crawl,” Seymour added.

Seymour said continuing the art crawls is simply a way to add to an appealing downtown and a way to bring in more crowds and businesses. With the setting of downtown Waukesha, he said that shouldn’t be a problem.

“First of all, the beauty of our historic town and the fact that we are along a riverwalk makes it a success,” Seymour said. “And we have great people that surround downtown and get tremendous support from local people that really appreciate the arts.”

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