Can Art Save My City?

Downtown Merced Isn’t Known for Anything Good. I Founded an Art Hop to Start Changing That.

Merced in California’s San Joaquin Valley has a population of 80,000 and a reputation for crime, unemployment, and teen pregnancy. But I want my hometown to be known for something else. My ultimate dream is for the city to have an arts district. I can see Merced filled with art galleries, studios, murals, and public art. Anything is possible: Just look at the Art Hop.

Kevin Hammon and I started the Merced Art Hop in 2008. We both owned businesses downtown and knew the place was dead at night. Saturday nights were downright depressing; there was no foot traffic, no culture, and no art. We had heard of art walks in other cities—events where people walk from location to location to see a variety of art—but neither of us had ever been to one. We wanted to bring together artists, performers, bands, schools, and organizations for one night of art in downtown Merced.

When we first raised the idea of an Art Hop, we got encouragement from local business owners and organizations like the Merced Redevelopment Agency and the Merced Arts Council. There were others who had an interest in making downtown Merced a magnet for something good.

But some people seemed to be waiting for us to fail. Kevin and I felt like black sheep among the city’s few movers and shakers. We were not part of the Merced clique, and didn’t have financial backing or come from well-known families in the community. We were nobodies who took nothing and decided to make it into something.

We had no budget—just some plywood donated from Home Depot and flyers printed by the city of Merced. We went door-to-door asking the business owners to showcase an artist. Some people were skeptical because of previous disappointments from failed events and the empty promises of promoters and city officials. But the grim reality of downtown Merced helped to convince people. At the time, downtown Merced only had one gallery, a natural disadvantage that we used to broaden support.

Artists and guests at the Merced Art Hop

Then we needed artists. To get the word out, we went to Merced College, the Atwater Fall Festival—basically anywhere and everywhere—to hand out flyers. Some people said we were crazy because nobody would go downtown at night. But a lot of artists said that Merced really needed something like this.

On the evening of the first Art Hop in 2008, we had the work of 30 artists spread across six blocks and 20 businesses on Main Street. There was a little confusion because of another event happening downtown that night. But when we did a second art hop three months later, there was a great turnout.

The Art Hop feels like a bridge between artists, business owners, and people of all ages—from teenagers to elderly people. You don’t have to be an art lover or an artist to appreciate the Art Hop. It was designed for everybody.

The Art Hop has grown dramatically since 2008. Today, we can have as many as 300 artists and 60 businesses participate in an Art Hop. Sometimes, we obtain permission to use vacant spaces downtown to allow elementary and high schools, youth organizations, and colleges to showcase a large exhibition. This fall, more than 75 artists and 2,000 people came to our fifth anniversary celebration. The sidewalks were filled with people, street performers, bands, children’s activities, artwork, and artist demonstrations.

Every year, the events bring more than 12,000 people downtown. This foot traffic and income is especially important for local businesses at a time when unemployment remains high (14.4 percent in Merced County).

The Art Hop also provides a venue for local artists to sell their artwork, brand themselves, and receive commissions for new work. For every event, we choose an “artist of the quarter” and highlight his or her artwork in our marketing materials. Artists have told us they sold their first paintings during Merced Art Hop.

The Art Hop continues to grow, along with our ambition. We’re working to get status as a nonprofit organization, form a committee and board, and secure ongoing funding. Our goal is to spark interest in the creation of new studios and gallery spaces for artists. We are also aiming to provide classes to teach artists marketing and other career-building skills. Finally, we want to create a scholarship fund to assist local artists and students. The Merced I dreamed about seems to be within reach.


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