When the executive director of the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll tells people where to find her organization on the internet, she's often met with disbelief.
“People say, ‘What do you mean, you’re gallerystroll.org? You’re not saltlakegallerystroll.org?’ Nope,” Kristina Robb said with a laugh. “Everybody asks, ‘How did you get gallerystroll.org?’ and I say, ‘Well, this is what happens when you’re one of the very first to have a URL for a gallery stroll.’”
The Salt Lake Gallery Stroll was not just one of the first to go online with its own website, it was one of the first, period. The monthly event is now in its 35th year, and while it’s tough to pin down exactly where it ranks, Robb said, “it is one of the longest-running, continuous gallery strolls in the country.”
At this point, “stroll” is a bit of a misnomer. A world-class sprinter might struggle to make it to all the venues in one evening. “We cover a lot of geography,” Robb said.
The Salt Lake City event — held the third Friday of the month January-November and the first Friday of the month in December — is not like its counterpart in Park City, where most of the venues are within walking distance of each other. December’s Salt Lake gallery stroll features three dozen venues across the city (and 10 of the regulars aren’t participating in the holiday stroll). They’re far too numerous and too far apart to visit all of them.
Holiday Stroll • This month’s Salt Lake Gallery Stroll is Friday, Dec. 7, from 6-9 p.m. A list of the participating venues can be found gallerystroll.org/current.htm.
“You can draw a little circle around the shows you want to see, and hit two, three, four in a night, depending on how much time you want to spend,” Robb said. “Some people spend the entire evening at one gallery.”
She estimated that an “average” gallery stroll attracts about 2,000 people, “and then upwards of 3,500 to 5,000 people to the big events.”
For many Utahns, the stroll is their first experience with the Salt Lake Valley visual arts community.
“A lot of people are afraid to even go into a gallery,” said Hadley Rampton, fine art consultant at Phillips Gallery. “They think we’ll somehow judge them if they don’t know about art, which is so not true.”
“If you walk into a gallery and you’re the only one there, yikes! It can be a little intimidating,” agreed Susan Barratt, gallery director at A Gallery.
And people tend to confuse art galleries with museums. Or churches.
“I mean, people whisper in here, and I’m like, ‘No! It’s a store!’” Barratt said. “And on gallery stroll, they’re not whispering. It’s an environment that’s free of intimidation and is more of a celebration. It’s a better introduction.”
What began as the Salt Lake Gallery Crawl has gone through changes over the past 3½ decades — a history that began amid contention and has weathered some internal strife over the years.
It was born out of the formation of the Utah Art Dealers Association — later renamed the Salt Lake Gallery Association — which was organized by for-profit galleries that banded together against what they saw as unfair competition from nonprofits.
“They decided there were sort of unfair business practices happening when other visual arts institutions could apply for government sponsorships as nonprofits, like the old Salt Lake Arts Center,” Robb said.
The crawl ferried people from gallery to gallery in Old Salty, a bus made to look like a train. “And then it broke down,” Robb said — right in front of one of the galleries — and more traditional buses were used.
A decade later, nonprofits joined with for-profit galleries and the gallery crawl continued under the auspices of the gallery association. “They realized there was strength in numbers,” Robb said.
By 2006, there was once again dissension within the organization. “There was a lot of infighting. People weren't getting along,” Robb said. “We were really stagnant.”
So she and fellow board member Laura Durham proposed “that we start highlighting the stroll as a public event and try to get more attention drawn to it. And developing it as a cultural institution.”
The proposal was approved unanimously, and the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll as we know it today was born — a separate, nonprofit organization that oversees what has become a tradition.
The Salt Lake Gallery Stroll features museums, traditional art galleries and nontraditional spaces, such as a tour of the murals at the Gateway Mall and exhibitions at Harmon’s Grocery at City Creek and the Nostalgia Cafe.
The strollers are also a disparate group. There are the regulars — visual artists, professors, collectors and self-identified art enthusiasts who make it their routine — and monthly newcomers, including a lot of millennials.
“And we’re seeing a lot of high-school kids popping into the cooler, more hip spaces. Just chillin’,” Robb said.
It’s a social occasion for the strollers and the galleries’ staffs.
“We look forward to it,” Barratt said. “We get to meet new people. We get more people on the mailing list. We’re there to answer questions.
"We have regulars, and we’re happy to see them. And they’re happy to see the gallery change and they’re happy to see the staff. It’s a great experience for clients and for people who work in the gallery.”
The stroll’s tagline is: Bring friends, meet artists, take home a masterpiece. It’s not necessarily a night when art collectors are making major purchases, however.
“A crowded gallery is a really hard place to actually look and decide if you’re going to buy an $8,000 work, but it sets the scene for people to come back and decide later,” Robb said.
“In the long run, the way the galleries stay open is we do need to sell art,” Rampton said. “With the gallery strolls, people see the wonderful art that’s available here.”
But one thing you won't find is the hard sell.
“Our goal is to just get people in galleries and enjoy themselves,” said Robb.
“We love when people who didn’t even know about us come back, and some of them become regulars because of the gallery stroll,” Rampton said.