Things have been quiet in the Art District on Santa Fe in the last year. The sidewalks have been mostly empty, and perhaps even more noticeably so after a lane of traffic was closed in order to widen walkways to create more walking room whenever First Fridays resumed on the street.
Kelly Austin-Rolo, an artist who runs D’Art Gallery, said that on a typical day in the last year, 5 to 20 people would wander into her gallery. Things gradually improved throughout COVID: a few more people, a few more sales each week. Then, the art district announced new programming to attract customers back to the businesses: Sundays on Santa Fe, a monthly event where guests can stop by the district on an afternoon to attend workshops, promotions and artist talks.
“It was sort of this slow building up,” Austin-Rolo said, “and then Sunday was like, boom!”
She said about 130 people came into D’Art for the first Sundays on Santa Fe event, on March 28.
“That’s the most people we’ve had in a day since COVID started. Those numbers were very encouraging,” she said.
Sundays on Santa Fe will take place on the last Sunday of the month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Shaina Belton, president of the Art District on Santa Fe, said the event is meant to replace the former Art of Brunch Series, which similarly encouraged patrons to visit the art district in a more relaxed environment than they’d see on First Fridays, the popular monthly even where galleries would keep their doors open longer and often throw parties. While the food and drink component of Art of Brunch has been removed, guests can still enjoy promotions from Santa Fe’s boutiques and galleries and shop in a smaller crowd.
The new series is part of a gradual reopening plan that Belton hopes will give businesses time to staff back up and prepare for larger crowds as they become safer to host.
“With COVID, a lot of people have had to lay off folks,” Belton said. “So we didn’t really want to jump the gate and say we’re doing this every Sunday, when people are already pretty stretched.”
She said the first Sunday event was a success. Many business owners reported higher turnout than usual, and galleries were selling artwork.
Niza Knoll, who owns the Niza Knoll Gallery, said 125 people visited her gallery on that first Sundays on Santa Fe.
“That’s a lot, since it’s been so, so quiet,” Knoll said.
She said visitors seemed to be in a great mood.
“It was fun to see all those people. It made me very positive and thinking that things are going to get better as we open up.”
Belton said there was a tangible shift in the mood on Santa Fe that Sunday.
“It felt strangely normal,” she said. “I got a little teary, if I’m going to be honest, because during COVID it’s been kind of a ghost town in the art district.”
She said it also felt relatively safe. People generally wore masks while walking between the businesses.
“So we were really excited,” she said. “We were not quite ready to do a full-fledged First Friday marketing campaign quite yet. But we really just wanted to get the public comfortable with coming back down and kind of re-integrate them back into the community in a safe way.”
Still, the loss of First Fridays has hurt a lot of businesses on Santa Fe. Rex Djuanvat, co-founder of Rocky Yama Sushi, said the event was always a huge hit for his restaurant.
“First Friday before was the day that all the businesses on Santa Fe were able to make money,” Djuanvat said. He said First Friday alone usually amounted to about 20 percent of his sales for the whole month.
Djuanvat said that the Sundays on Santa Fe event last month didn’t have that effect. While he understands the galleries around his restaurant benefitted from the promotion, he said his restaurant didn’t see a huge traffic surge that day, though things have gradually gotten better in the last few months as weather has improved and people have become more familiar with his restaurant, which opened in 2019.
Knoll said that even before the pandemic, Santa Fe was mostly quiet until the weekends and that a lot of her business came from First Fridays.
“We normally would get between 1,500 and over 2,000 (people who) would come into the gallery on First Friday. That’s a lot of people on one night,” she said. “But that totally stopped.”
Belton said the art district has been talking about how and when to bring back First Fridays. She said she’s watching Denver’s COVID numbers and restrictions and asking businesses when they’d be comfortable resuming the event.
“A lot of them are still not quite ready,” she said. “A lot of the businesses have voiced to us that they would like to see vaccination numbers be a little higher before we have a free-for-all First Friday, like we used to.”
Austin-Rolo is one of those hesitant business owners. She said her gallery has only let in ten people at a time.
“I don’t want to really be in a gallery elbow-to-elbow with people quite yet,” she said.
Knoll said it would be “scary” if First Fridays resumed soon.
“If they open it up, I wouldn’t be able to control the number of people that come in,” she said.
Belton estimates that First Fridays might resume around June, but it’s too soon to say.
“We’re just paying attention to the news and all the variants and kind of playing the wait-and-see game to see where the numbers are for our community,” Belton said. “You don’t want to put anybody at risk.”
She added that though there’s still no official First Friday event, many businesses on Santa Fe are open on Fridays, and some are even doing their own events and promotions on the first Friday of the month. Knoll, for instance, is one of several gallery owners extending their hours on the first Friday of the month. She said she’d usually close the gallery around 5 p.m. On those Fridays, she’s been keeping it open until 7 or 7:30.
“We had quite a few people come in, so people are looking to do something on first Friday,” she said. “It’s not a large amount. It’s easy to control at this point… But people are looking for something fun to do.”
D’Art similarly started extending Friday hours to 7 p.m. Austin-Rolo said that on a recent Friday evening, the gallery saw close to 50 people.
“People still understand the concept of First Friday, even though the art district isn’t promoting it,” Austin-Rolo said. She hopes to soon extend hours even further, to 9 or 9:30. “We’re sort of looking to the future.”
“The neighborhood as a whole is about to get a pretty cool facelift,” she said.
Still, she said, the road to recovery won’t be an easy one.
“Yes, it’s exciting. We’re reopening,” Belton said. “But the struggle is going to continue for a lot of these businesses for the remainder of this year to kind of bounce back from those big losses in 2020.”