TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, on a rainy Thursday evening, a small cluster of Portland art galleries made a decision that would reshape Portland for decades—culturally, socially, and physically.
They stayed open late.
The idea—quickly dubbed “First Thursday”—began as a simple monthly ploy by art dealers William Jamison and Bob Kochs to draw potential new buyers: younger, middle-class parents who, unlike the more typical patrons of the era, worked during the day and were busy on Saturdays. First Thursday quickly became a popular social event, a rallying point for the arts community, and a fine place to shop for dates. But it also became a force. (See PDX Index)
Portland’s galleries in those years were scattered, from the Yamhill District downtown all the way to NW 21st Avenue. But as a fledgling cluster began to emerge around NW Glisan Street and 12th Avenue (Northwest Artists Workshop, Quartersaw Gallery, Jamison Thomas, and Pulliam Nugent—all now gone), First Thursday brought more and more people to venture deeper into the area then known as the Northwest Triangle, soon redubbed “The Pearl” by gallery owner Thomas Augustine. Savvy landowners like Al Solheim, John Gray, and Ken Unkeles charged artist-run galleries like Blue Sky and Blackfish cheap rents. Coffee and furniture shops followed. Cranes and condo owners arrived soon after that.
It’s a story of many cities, usually concluding with the galleries scattering to another cheap part of town. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Pearl’s gentrification: the galleries stayed.
Sure, some went under. New ones arrived. But First Thursday wove the idea of art deeply into the fabric of the emerging streetcar-laced, park-studded, more thickly built new neighborhood. In 1998, the Pacific Northwest College of Art moved in. In 2002, the district’s first new park, named for the late William Jamison, opened. In the 2000s, Elizabeth Leach, Augen, Froelick, PDX, Hartman, and Blue Sky galleries, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Craft bought spaces.
Today, as it celebrates its silver anniversary, First Thursday is a full-fledged festival, a platform for everything from music and street vendors to performance artists and political leafleteers. The A-list gallery owners—dubbed the Portland Art Dealers Association, or PADA—lament that they rarely sell a thing anymore on First Thursday. (They often host their official openings on the first Wednesday.) But they still stay open, viewing the monthly evening as a public service. Indeed, the PADA dealers alone show more than 500 artists in 200-plus exhibitions that are visited every First Thursday by 300 to 1,100 viewers and, over the course of the year, organize visits from 70 schools.
Rare is the city in which a simple evening art walk could contribute so much to the sense of place. But First Thursday is another reminder that, in Portland, the best ideas often have legs.