Beginner's Guide to the First Thursday Gallery Walk

Our guide to downtown’s galleries and the monthly First Thursday arts walk for arts scene newbies and veterans alike. Take a self-guided tour with our map.

By Sarah Ostaszewski October 2, 2014

The first Thursday of every month, most downtown galleries throw open their doors, uncork the wine, and invite in the public to see their newest show. Depending on the weather, the galleries and the streets between them fill with folks of all stripes, turning into an evening of art viewing and people watching.

Hours generally run from 6–9 pm. Any newcomer to Portland quickly learns that art is everywhere, no matter which way you look, so we’ve put together a self-guided tour to take in galleries both well known and up-and-coming. Scroll down for a google map to our walking tour.

For the sake of a beginning, we’re going to start at the gaggle of big guns around the intersection of NW Ninth Avenue and Flanders Street, but you can also start further west (see below).

When Elizabeth Leach first moved to Portland in 1980, there were only three galleries in town, none of which showed artists from further afield than San Francisco. So she opened her own space in 1981 to import artists she loved, and has since become the biggest gallery in town, both in terms of the prominent national artists she exhibits and the local work she exports to major art expos and collectors (read our profile). Which is to say, you’ll generally see the biggest names (and often most ambitious work) at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. (Insider tip: ask if there’s a show upstairs at the Lumber Room, a stunning private loft/gallery that often hosts some of the best shows in town.) 417 NW 9th Avenue

PDX Contemporary Art is for those who like a “slight conceptual edge” to their visual work. The gallery’s artists include some of the most well-known and exciting local names, such as James Lavadour, who was one of 100 artists selected for the recent survey of American art at the Crystal Bridges Museum; Storm Tharp, who was selected for the Whitney Biennial in 2010 (and currently has a show up); and director Gus Van Sant. Also make sure to scope out the mini-show in its window on Ninth Avenue. 925 NW Flanders Street

Across the hallway, Upfor Gallery stands out from most local galleries (and galleries nationwide, for that matter) by focusing on boundary-pushing digital art and new media. Shows are as likely to contain flashing LED screens or immersive video installations as traditional work on the walls. Owned by Theo Downes-Le Guin (you might recognize the name for his mother, the preeminent writer Ursula K Le Guin), Upfor celebrated its one-year anniversary in September with a show by art superstar Ryan Trecartin—testament to its ability already to attract cutting-edge artists to Portland’s relatively small art scene. (Read our interview with Downes-LeGuin about his goals when he opened the gallery.) 929 NW Flanders Street

Having opened in November 2013, Hap Gallery is off to a good start as the new kid on the block, programming dynamic works by young artists—and attracting an equally young, hip crowd that you might not see wandering into the established galleries across the street. 916 NW Flanders St

Blackfish Gallery formed in 1979 as an artist-run co-op, meaning there’s a high chance that can discuss the work with the individuals who made it. The cohort of artists takes turns displaying their work, with two artists in the main space and a third in the backroom each month. The “Fishbowl” windows on the gallery’s facade feature guest artists and non-profits. 420 NW 9th Avenue

J. Pepin Art Gallery has a unique story—or collection of stories—to tell. Artist Jennifer Pepin, who is bipolar, started the gallery for artists to reframe mental illnesses, displaying the stories of how mental illness affects their work alongside the work itself. The gallery shows mostly paintings in a wide variety of media and subject matter, from representational to abstract expressionistic. 319 NW 9th Avenue

Head south down Ninth Avenue to Quintana Gallery, which has devoted itself solely to Native American art since 1972. From totem poles to masks to sculpture, its assortment of antique and contemporary work comes from trained masters and self-taught craftsmen alike. 124 NW 9th Ave

Next door, Annie Meyer Artwork Gallery shows original work by owner Annie Meyer, as well as rotating exhibits by other local artists. Meyer’s evocative plein air landscapes, ranging from France’s Sancerre region to Eastern Washington, stir emotions with their minimal shapes and vivid hues—and you can share those emotions over a glass of local wine. 120 NW 9th Ave, Suite 102

The DeSoto Building

Image: MOCC

Now head east, young arts lover, to the DeSoto Building on Davis Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway.

Photography lovers must stop at Blue Sky. Founded by artists in 1975, Blue Sky has grown into one of the leading national photography centers, so much so that the Portland Art Museum is giving it an honor typically reserved for artists and collectors: a retrospective called Blue Sky: The Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts at 40. (Read our article about the history of the gallery.) Each month, the gallery features two photographers side-by-side—often from completely different parts of the world—along with artists talks and a public research library that includes the Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers. 122 NW 8th Ave

Charles A. Hartman Fine Art explores subtle narrative in contemporary art, exhibiting abstract painting, photography, and storybook-like drawing from an extensive list of regional and international artists. Much of the photography is figurative and documentary, like Corey Arnold’s photos of commercial fishermen at sea, although you’ll also find urban and occasional nature scenes. 134 NW 8th Ave

The Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC), a branch of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, generally shows multi-month exhibitions organized around themes (e.g. local fashion) or objects (e.g. the bowl), featuring local and/or national artists working with non-traditional media—ceramics, glass, metal, wood, fiber, and mixed media. Often drawing from the museum’s collection of over 1000 objects and other local collections, the shows are gaining growing national attention (the New York Times raved about said Bowl show). 724 NW Davis St

Augen Gallery is known for showing prints by modern masters (think Picasso, Munch, Rauschenberg, and Warhol) alongside shows by Northwest artists. Don’t miss the smaller backrooms for an always-interesting rotating roster of both. 716 NW Davis St

Next door to Augen is Froelick Gallery, which likes a strong, independent, contemporary voices. Most months, the two-roomed gallery is divided between two artists—both emerging and established—many of whom live in the Pacific Northwest, although others hail from the Gulf Coast, Brooklyn, and Tokyo. 714 NW Davis St

Head further west to the 26-year-old Butters Gallery Ltd. Each month, Butters features a single artist or group show in its large, flexible Old Town space, drawing from a stable of prominent local, national, and international artists in all mediums. There’s also always a rotating display of other artists, like a visual pu-pu platter of its collection. 520 NW Davis St, Second Floor

If you’re up for it, head further west to the waterfront for the University of Oregon’s visual laboratory, White Box, although check to make sure it has a show first. The space encourages students, faculty, and local artists to explore critical issues in contemporary arts, ranging from political works to cutting-edge multimedia in its dedicated projection room, the Gray Bow. University of Oregon White Stage Building, 24 NW 1st Ave

If you have not yet run out of steam, here are some outliers worth the trek (or working in at the beginning of your walk):

Image: PNCA

Feldman Gallery + Project Space was established in 1999 as a teaching gallery and has grown into a fertile ground for experimentation, bringing in national and international artists for six shows a year, often in collaboration with other arts institutions, such as PICA or Reed University’s Cooley Gallery. Curator and PNCA grad Mack McFarland describes the space as “a place to see what an artist does, in a very real-life way.” Check first to make sure there’s a First Thursday opening. Pacific Northwest College of Art, 1241 NW Johnson Street

Moving away from the heavily concentrated gallery blocks you’ll find Waterstone Gallery, another artist-owned space featuring 17 artists and devoted to original, contemporary Northwest art—mainly paintings, paper works, and sculpture. 424 NW 12th Avenue

Closer to Burnside, Bullseye Gallery—a part of Bullseye Glass Company—exhibits dazzling works of glass from both its own kilns and visiting artists, as well as shows exploring the intersections of art and architecture. Few galleries along the tour are so focused on one medium, so this is worth a peek. 300 NW 13th Avenue

Raised in the 1960’s bohemian Portland, Laura Russo entered the art world as an assistant at Arlene Schnitzer’s Fountain Gallery before taking it over and eventually transitioning to her own Laura Russo Gallery. She championed many of the city’s mid-century masters (including her uncle Michele Russo), playing a significant role in the growth of Portland’s art scene. While the gallery has some younger artists, go here to see the names that helped make Portland what it is today. 805 NW 21st Avenue

The night’s grown a little later, maybe you’ve had a couple glasses of wine, now it’s time to take on some of the edgier, newer galleries.

Hellion Gallery’s owner, Matt Wagner, likes to buck the trend, eschewing top names for undiscovered and untraditional artists, with a penchant for illustrative painting and sculpture that deeply engage the imagination. His gallery is like an underground railroad between Japan, Portland, and Europe, ferrying artists back and forth. Wagner is also behind the The Tall Trees book series, which is like a primer to local artists, and played a role in the Forest for the Trees project that has put more than a dozen murals up all over town (see a slide show). If that’s not enough to motivate you, Gigantic Brewing beer flows freely during First Thursday. 19 NW 5th Avenue, Suite 204 (second floor)

Finally, end your night at the Everett Station Lofts, an entire block of artist live/work spaces between Broadway and Fifth Avenue where the party tends to go late. Circle the block and poke your head into the ever-changing array of galleries—some better than others—but make sure to check these out:

Cock Gallery shows provocative, transgressive, and intelligent work—often with a queer twist—that you won’t find anywhere else in town. 625 NW Everett Street, Suite number 106

The Pony Club is another artist-run collective, a gallery giving love to art, comics, nature, and food. Representing new local and international printmakers, illustrators, and cartoonists, the gallery/studio space is small, sweet, and inviting. 625 NW Everett Street, Suite number 105

Finally, here's a map to it allalthough we always suggest taking the time to get lost.

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