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Portland Art Walk to turn Congress Street into roving party

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Portland Art Walk to turn Congress Street into roving party

PORTLAND — First Friday art walks have become the norm in cities and towns across the state. But Portland is going big next week, rolling the sidewalks right out into the street.

The first pedestrian-friendly Art Walk on Dec. 6 is a roving party. Clowns, jugglers, acrobats, scenes from “The Nutcracker” and bold window tableaux will help turn Congress Street, the city’s spine, into a hub of holiday activity.

“The venues make a bigger effort, the Maine College of Art is a huge attraction,” said Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Creative Portland, which runs the free, monthly event.

Now in its 13th year, First Friday Art Walk has evolved organically. “It started by galleries and businesses in the 600 block of Congress Street trying to get more people into their venues to appreciate art,” Hutchins said.

At first the focus was on “free and accessible” visual art, Hutchins said.

In the last few years, merchants have rallied around the night, offering wine tastings and musical performances as an eclectic lot of street artists populate the scene.

“It’s grown so much. People are spilling into the streets normally,” Hutchins said. “It’s really become a city-wide, grass-roots culture festival.”

This year Creative Portland and Portland’s Downtown District worked together to pull off a Christmas miracle: Closing Congress Street to traffic from 6-8 p.m. between Brown and State streets.

“My goal is to create an atmosphere to draw more people than would normally come to this area,” said Steve Hewins, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District.

To get people to circulate up and down Congress, “Circus in the Streets,” is taking place at Congress and Park streets.

The show will feature internationally acclaimed acrobat artists, including local performers and students from the new Circus Conservatory of America, which will open soon in Thompson’s Point. There will be two 45-minute shows.

In the other direction, Portland Ballet will stage a version of “The Nutcracker” in the window of Portland Public Library. “It’s really quite stunning,” Hutchins said.

Sandwiched between the two events will be a host of street artists, from vaudeville performers to acoustic rock to live drawing.

“It’s all self-directed. If someone wants to reserve Congress Square for a formal event they can, but the vast majority of the stuff on the street is grass-roots,” Hutchins said.

Closing the street for the Holiday Edition Art Walk might be like old Kris Kringle, coming just once a year.

“We will see how this goes and review the impact … if it goes well, I could see it happening again,” Hutchins said.

First Friday Art Walk Holiday Edition is 6-8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 6, and free for all. For more information, visit the Portland's Downtown District website.