If June is any indication, you can hold off on the wreaths and condolences for LoDa Artwalk. As the chestnut goes, the tales of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
Most of us recall the backlash brought by the city’s decision to enforce existing codes concerning the sidewalk vendors at the monthly gallery strolls beginning in March. The number of pop-up peddlers had exploded since the successful event’s beginnings a decade ago and the resulting tension between brick-and-mortar businesses and the transient merchants resulted in the city asserting dominion.
A large map of the available street-side slots stands in the lobby of the Mobile Arts Council, a nonprofit, nongovernmental entity that offered to help with the registration process rather than sending artists into the warren of Government Plaza. Of the 90 possible berths it depicts, fewer than 25 have been claimed. In the period before the crackdown, tables and booths lined Dauphin Street for block after block, so that much of an effect is apparent.
A peddler’s license is $130 and after July 1, the fee will be prorated to $105. That includes a $70 nonrefundable sales tax deposit. Additional taxes on annual sales over $1,400 will be due through remittance forms.
For the June 12 event, the heavens held more sway than city codes. Ominous dark clouds threatened, so alternate plans were made to move the event indoors to The Temple, just a block off the Artwalk main drag.
“The city called me a couple of days ago and worked this out,” Temple owner Scott Gonzales told Artifice. “They had been watching the weather forecast.”
Gonzales manned a bar in the expansive and idiosyncratic former fraternal lodge. On the floor, a Dixieland jazz band played while gymnasts twirled and climbed long swaths of fabric hanging from near the 30-foot ceilings.
The space wasn’t free, though, as Gonzales had to pay for lights, labor and air conditioning. From what he told Artifice “off the record,” the fee negotiated showed not only incentive by the city to take care of paying merchants, but a willingness on his behalf to be community minded.
The rain threat passed, so vendors quickly struck indoor booths and hustled to claim their sidewalk spots. The lengthy summer afternoon lasted nearly until the event’s conclusion at 9 p.m., with crowds still building.
Katie Lynn Carpenter sold needle-felting work from a table. She previously sold work at a vintage market in West Mobile – a business card tagged her endeavor “Cooked Mushrooms” – and decided to try her hand at Artwalk, though the licensing controversy cast doubt.
“At first it was aggravating, like the city was trying to take control,” Carpenter said. “But I paid the $150 anyway. We’ve been out here a couple months and it’s been pretty good so far.”
Carpenter said she also noted the event was as much about socializing as about art. Apparently all it took was one month to see that.
At a table on Cathedral Square, Elizabeth Dexter-Wilson sold handmade jewelry. Like Carpenter, it was her second month on the scene.
“Sales last month were very good. Foot traffic was very good,” she said. “The $150 fee shied me away for three months but then I thought ‘what the heck’ and I made it all back in my first month out here.”
Transplants from Indiana to Mobile, she and her husband spoke of a trip to Germany and a similar street festival that required even more thorough licensing. They saw Mobile’s requirements as just a part of the cost and process.
As twilight neared, it looked like a standard Artwalk downtown minus the multitude of sidewalk vendors. The police still blocked traffic down Dauphin. The shops, galleries, bars, restaurants and sidewalks still crawled with patrons and foot traffic.
One interesting component was a vehicle on Cathedral Square that at first glance appeared to be a food truck. A second look revealed it to actually be a mobile clothing merchant dubbed “Polish Boutique.”
Adjacent to it, artist Dan Haggerty – yes, he has a beard but no grizzly – displayed colorful and whimsical Mardi-Gras-inspired works in his first month at Artwalk. An Atlanta native, he caught wind of Mobile’s monthly event while in New Orleans.
“I think the fees aren’t far behind New Orleans, maybe close to the same,” Haggerty said. “The difference is they have an exclusive group of artists who have tens of millions of tourists who see their stuff.”
Haggerty claimed a Crescent City artist friend paints for six months, then makes enough in sales over one month to support a year’s living expenses. As for himself, Haggerty quickly noted his luck in having a software-designer wife who can help him finance ventures.
“If people wanted to spend money on school to make money, they should have become a doctor or lawyer,” Haggerty said. “If you’re doing this looking to get rich, you’re crazy.”