TOLEDO — For 26 years, first in mid October and more recently over Labor Day weekend, visitors flocked to Toledo for a weekend peek at artists at work, or in the words of Toledo Art Walk founder Michael Gibbons, “to get a glimpse of the real life of the artist — seeing art where it’s being created.”
But Art Walk will not take place this coming Labor Day weekend. This year, following the death of Gibbons in July and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, its current sponsor, the Yaquina River Museum of Art in Toledo, has canceled the event.
“When you do something for 25-plus years, things slow down,” said Judy Ross Gibbons, Michael’s widow. “It might be time to try something different.”
The Art Walk has a long history in Toledo. It began when Gibbons, a mentor artist of Corvallis’s Vistas & Vineyards plein air art program, opened to the public his studio in the former Methodist Church during the group’s annual fall “artists on location” studio tour. He welcomed visitors, spoke about his art, offered refreshments and Springhill Cellars wine, and brought in local music.
In October 1993, after Gibbons had been part of the Corvallis-based studio tour for two years, he persuaded Toledo artists Doug Haga and Ivan Kelly to join him and open their studios as well. What became known as the Toledo Art Walk continued every year thereafter, with various artists coming and going, and in 1996, the event was moved from October to Labor Day weekend to take advantage of better weather. Gibbons never missed a year.
Through the years, visitor numbers rose and fell, reaching well into the hundreds on occasion.
Gibbons, Haga and Kelly were labeled the Founding Artists of the Toledo Art Walk, and in addition to opening their studios, hung an exhibit of their work at the Toledo Public Library.
Judy Gibbons said last week that she didn’t know whether the Art Walk would ever return in its original form, and noted that there are not many artists in Toledo at present.
But Gibbons’ art will nevertheless remain a strong presence in Toledo and in the Yaquina River area that he captured in his paintings. Judy Gibbons said this year the Yaquina River Museum board told her they would like to host a memorial exhibit in December in honor of Gibbons, who founded the museum in 2002 together with Judy.
With the museum interested in celebrating Gibbons and his art, Judy suggested that instead of a December memorial exhibit, they host a birthday party for Michael — his birthday is Dec. 18. “And that could take over for the Art Walk,” she added. “We’d have a one-day event that is cultural and could replace the Art Walk.”
Judy Gibbons said that, “for several years I’ve been saying to the board that we should do something that celebrates the founder.” She noted that the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont., which features the work of western artist Charles M. Russell, hosts a birthday party and exhibit each year to honor its namesake, “and even in bad weather, thousands attend.”
The Yaquina River Museum of Art is a nonprofit art gallery and history museum across Northeast Alder street from the Gibbons’ home — the Vicarage — and gallery. Its purpose is to preserve and promote art inspired by the Yaquina River watershed, and it houses a collection in what is known as the Schoolhouse, a former millworker’s house that once was home to the Sunday School of Toledo’s United Methodist Church — hence the name. Further up the street is Gibbons’ studio in the Old Church.
As much as Gibbons painted the Toledo area, he also worked diligently to promote the city as an arts mecca. And in spite of his absence, his influence remains strong in town, with Judy continuing to work toward their idea of a house museum in their residence, the former Episcopal vicarage that is also home to his gallery. A house museum allows public access to the home where the artist lived and worked, and houses a collection of art, furnishings and historical memorabilia.
With the right financing, the museum gift shop could move across the street to the gallery portion of the Vicarage, with the house museum upstairs, Judy said. And with the City of Toledo looking once again to market its position in culture and art, the Alder Street art district could grow and thrive.
Judy Gibbons said she has offered an artist-in-residence program in the past, in which artists can rent Gibbons’ studio for several weeks to a month, and where they can pursue their art, offer a public presentation and add a small piece of their work to the Yaquina River Museum collection.
“It’s worked pretty well,” she said
Currently the studio is for sale, however, and its future depends on whether ideas for the house museum and art residency program can become financially feasible, via an endowment or other means.
Meanwhile, though the Art Walk is not happening this year, Judy hopes to see the resumption of the First Weekend Art Celebrations when pandemic health concerns make that possible. She hopes the museum will continue running the monthly event, a time when Toledo studios and the museum are open to visitors for art demonstrations, artist talks, music, wine and refreshments.
On the Toledo Art Walk’s 10th anniversary in 2003, this reporter asked Gibbons how long he thought the annual weekend festival would continue. With a smile, Gibbons responded, “We’ll probably stay doing this till death do us part.”
And while Art Walk may change its shape and perhaps its name, Gibbons’ legacy and foresight remain.