It was a Friday night. The big stage at Proctors was dark, and the seats were empty. But other parts of the Proctors arts complex were buzzing.
In the GE Theatre, at the Electric City Couture Fashion Show, a pumped-up crowd of 400-plus applauded wildly as models in hand-crocheted mini dresses and flirty headgear strutted across the floor.
Upstairs, in the spacious Fenimore Gallery, “Social Face Working,” a hip exhibit by 40 artists who connected through the Internet, attracted an upbeat throng.
Robb Alley was jumping, too, with live music on stage, roller derby girls in skates and helmets and paintings from the Schenectady Art Society.
Art Night Schenectady was the reason for the good vibe, and the May event was the fourth anniversary of the free arts celebration, which happens year-round on the third Friday of every month at 30 venues.
Art Night Schenectady
WHEN: 5 to 9 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Downtown Schenectady, Upper Union Street and the Stockade District
WHAT: This month’s events include Shenanigans, a Gaelic quartet in Proctors’ Robb Alley; guitarist Matthew Billie at The Parker Inn; and a reception from 4 to 8 p.m. for an exhibit by Sandi Graham and Ginit Marten at Sow’s Ear Studio. There’s also a new Art Night venue, Discerning Artistry at 147 Mohawk Ave. in Scotia, where Deborah Angilletta, Tim Prendergast and John Morette are featured artists.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.artnightschenectady.com
“It was a delight to see folks gobble up edgy art. And they mixed. They went upstairs to the gallery,” said Richard Lovrich, Proctors’ art director and director of Art Night at Proctors.
On the Jay Street pedestrian mall and on Upper Union Street, where there are about 20 other Art Night venues, the scene was quite different.
At 7:30 p.m., the weather was warm and fair, and Jay Street was filled with inviting rhythms as a dozen hand drummers performed outdoors, but only one person stopped to listen.
A few people walked in and out of Jay Street Gallery, but only Ambition Cafe, where a Cher impersonator was performing, and The Open Door, where an author was signing books, were bustling.
Over on Upper Union, there were plenty of sushi eaters at Mr. Wasabi, a Japanese restaurant, and paintings by Tommy Watkins hung over the booths. But there was no sign of Art Night.
“Art Night differs from month to month, and it depends what’s going. . . . People were not migrating much,” explained Mitch Messmore, founder/coordinator of Art Night.
From March through May, many supported the idea of Art Night, and offered a different opinion or suggestion.
“It still has a long way to go,” said Natalie Boburka at Jay Street Gallery. Boburka would like to see more events out on the street and suggested that venues be marked with balloons or signs. “Something more dramatic,” she said.
Boburka is one of Art Night’s biggest supporters, and she and her husband, Ted, were pioneers at the old Jay Street Studios in Center City, where more than a dozen artists opened individual work spaces to visitors.
“Art Night is a terrific date night,” said Boburka. “It’s free, and instead of just being entertained, you can get involved with the artists.”
After Center City closed and the YMCA moved into the renovated complex, the Boburkas moved to their current space. Earlier this year, they turned the cooperative gallery into studio space for six artists.
“It’s a creative work space. You can be an artist, you can be a musician,” said Boburka.
“Art Night is just something fun we do. It’s not something we do to survive,” said Evan Euripidou, owner of Anthology Design Studio, an upscale floral shop across the street from Proctors, where abstract paintings by Tony Iadicicco hang on the walls.
Whose event is it?
“We’ve had some really good Art Nights with live music and lots of people hanging out,” said Euripidou, a Rotterdam native. “I would like to see an emphasis on all of Schenectady, not just the big players. It feels like a competition between Proctors and the local businesses. Is it a Proctors event or a citywide event?”
At Sow’s Ear Studio on Upper Union Street, operator Rosemary Prock says receptions for their art exhibits get “a fairly decent crowd,” and Art Night is “evolving” and “going great.” The shop was open during April Art Night but closed for the May event because they were between shows, she said. “If we can, we usually hold our openings on Art Night.”
Don Rittner, historian for the city and county of Schenectady and leader of the Schenectady Art Attack in March 2010, says he’s a regular participant because he loves to see new artwork and talk to artists.
Art Night “is good, but we need to increase participation,” he said. The event could also benefit from “more diversity, more promotion and more locations.”
During the April Art Night, there was a hand-lettered sign in front of the old Key Bank to direct visitors upstairs to the studios of four artists: Gerri Moore and Chris Averill-Green on the second floor and Carol Caruso and Catherine Wagner Minnery on the third floor.
“We refer to ourselves as the Artists at Key Hall,” said Minnery.
The four women, who moved from the nearby Working gallery and studio in October, love their new roomy space, with its 18-foot-high ceilings, north light and tall windows looking out on State Street.
“When people are bustling at Proctors and there are events down below, I feel like I’m in Manhattan,” said Averill-Green.
And Art Night?
“It’s in a state of flux,” said Minnery. “Proctors seems to have a lot going on. There seems to be less on the street.”
“I don’t know how many people know we’re here,” said Moore.
Caruso believes Art Night would grow if more downtown space was rented to artists.
“It would bring hundreds and hundreds of people to downtown Schenectady,” she said.
The Schenectady Art Society sets up a different exhibit in Robb Alley every Art Night.
“You get a lot of traffic going through,” said Ginger Hoeppner, a featured artist for April.
Hoeppner says they’ve signed up new members and have been selling quite a few paintings, too.
While Union College and the Schenectady Museum were signed up as venues, they have since dropped out.
“While Art Night Schenectady is a fabulous community-building event, it is centered in the downtown area,” said Kara Jeffs, assistant curator of the Mandeville Gallery. “There was a severe lack of attendance over the course of the two years in which we participated.”
The Schenectady Museum used to offer free admission on Art Night.
“People weren’t coming to the museum. Sometimes we had no attendance,” said Mary Ellen Hearn, director of development and external relations. Since February, the museum has been offering “Power Hour,” free admission from 11 a.m. to noon on the first Sunday of the month instead.
Art Night Schenectady was inspired by Albany’s First Friday, which was launched by Michael Wiedrich in 2006. Messmore, a Schenectady native who was on the committee for the Albany event, decided to create a similar event in Schenectady and enlisted the support of Proctors and the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp.
Signing up venues
Messmore went door to door to sign up venues, and in May 2007, the first Schenectady Art Night kicked off during the same week that Bow-Tie Cinemas opened on State Street. Six months later, Proctors unveiled its major expansion project.
During its first year, participants wore black-and-white sticky badges and rode a free trolley that shuttled them to the Stockade, the Schenectady Museum and Union College. After the economy took a downturn, the trolley, which was donated by Union, was discontinued.
Messmore, who still volunteers as unpaid Art Night coordinator, stays in touch with the 30 venues, creates the monthly flier and maintains the website.
Messmore and Proctors employees Lovrich and Meghan Murphy are curators for Art Night, while volunteers Jennifer Robinson Reid and Shana Silverman help with planning and support.
“There’s no real budget to promote Art Night,” said Lovrich, “but Facebook really helps in that area.”
There’s also an Art Night Committee made up of artists, musicians, business owners and community volunteers that meets at Proctors at 2 p.m. the Tuesday after each Art Night, and all meetings are open to the public.
Last fall, Messmore moved to Beirut, Lebanon, because his wife is working there, but he continues to coordinate Art Night using email, Facebook, Skype and Twitter.
In May, he helped launch Art Night Beirut, a new event in the Middle East city of more than 1 million, which happens on the same night as Art Night Schenectady.
“Our mission has always remained the same,” he said, “to support the arts, artists and businesses throughout Schenectady and to show people what a vibrant city it is. We have also made it our mission to educate people on how to buy art and to help artists sell their art.”
Messmore and Lovrich admit that Art Night activity can be spotty some months, but there’s always something happening somewhere, they say.
“Proctors has a lot of things going on during Art Night, but it is not the only place where things are happening,” said Messmore. “The Open Door Bookstore always draws a good audience for its book signings; the Sow’s Ear Studio and Gallery always pleases with their art openings. Moon and River Cafe has artists’ receptions and musical acts every month.
“We all have our own growing pains. We strive to keep Art Night fresh and give the people a reason to come to Schenectady for a free night of art and culture.”