It’s weekends like this that makes Erik Reader happy to be the new “downtown guy” in Rock Island.
Back in February, just a few days after Reader started as the executive director of the Downtown Rock Island Partnership, he started hearing about events set for the first weekend of May.
“A lot of people don’t realize everything that’s here to discover or rediscover,” he said. “For me, I’m in the same boat. I don’t really know all that Rock Island has to offer being so new.”
For Reader, who two weeks ago moved into his new office on 2nd Avenue, this is a good chance to change that.
This weekend, Gallery Hop, which returns for its 19th year on Friday, the inaugural Rock Town Lit Fest and a downtown open house will converge on the streets of downtown Rock Island in an initiative tagged as #WhatsupdowntownRI.
“Early on, we decided to put it together in this bigger branded thing. It’s a chance to check out everything we have going on,” Reader said. “As the downtown guy, you can’t ask for more than that.”
In his role leading the Downtown Rock Island Partnership, which is under the umbrella of Renaissance Rock Island and blends the Development Association of Rock Island (DARI) and The District into one entity, Reader said he hopes to act as a supporter and connector for businesses and people in the community. He has taken the first step in doing so by launching the organization’s website, downtownrockisland.org.
“I want to provide that strong foundation of what the downtown organization can do,” Reader said. “We can embrace the last 30 years of activity, embellish on it and set the course for the next 30 years. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes helps with that.”
Rock Town Lit Fest
There’s plenty of music and artsy festivals around the Q-C. But a literature festival?
It may be a first, but Ryan Collins, executive director of the Midwest Writing Center, said it was time.
“There’s a lot of arts and culture festivals here and none of them really include the literary arts,” Collins said. “We wanted to feature writers, poets and publishers in the community who don’t always get the attention they deserve.”
The two-day festival includes a lit crawl (think: a bar crawl with readings at each stop) on Friday and a book fair, complete with more readings and panel discussions, on Saturday.
Collins is following the model of events such as Mission Creek Festival, held in Iowa City, which has a strong literary component with public lectures and readings alongside concerts.
“It’s already happening in other places,” he said. “You hear different world perspectives and also hear writers talk about how they go about their work.”
At the fest, Collins said to expect a variety of poets and writers, from high school students to college professors.
“They make you laugh, make you contemplate something or make you cry,” Collins said. “You get up there and it’s just you and a microphone. I think that takes a lot of courage and the audience sees that and is moved in a way.”
At its core, the Gallery Hop, an art-themed stroll that showcases more than 300 artists in more than 20 locations around Rock Island, is about getting people to experience art in a variety of places, some unconventional.
A new aspect of the free event, presented by the MidCoast Fine Arts, MidCoast's Gallery West, The ARTery and Quad-City Arts, is live art demonstrations, according to Sherry Maurer, executive director of MidCoast Fine Arts.
“There’s an incredible vitality of arts in our community,” Maurer said. “There’s a lot of treasures and talents to explore in places you wouldn’t normally see art.”
One of those is Native Woods, a business owned by her husband, Mike Lawrence, that specializes in sawing and millwork. For the past few weeks, he has hosted an artist working on a torii gate, a type of traditional Japanese gate made of wood, in his shop. The gate will be on display during the Gallery Hop.
“It’s about examining what kinds of things can really be art and how art can interact with different areas and interests,” Lawrence said. “And how to do things that are not the standard."
Downtown open house
The list of more than 40 potential stops participating Saturday in the downtown open house includes a coffee shop, furniture store, shoe repair shop, art galleries and salons.
And the list features venues located beyond the heart of downtown Rock Island.
That falls in line with Reader’s goals, he said.
“The whole charge is to show off the whole downtown and that encompasses a lot more than The District,” Reader said of the two-block strip on 2nd Avenue. “The downtown can feel like a little bit of an island, so the grand vision is connecting people in different neighborhoods. We want to get people into places you wouldn’t normally think of.”
The events on tap Friday and Saturday serve as a good start.
“That’s what makes the downtown so special because there are things happening that don’t normally happen in small towns,” he said. “There’s a vibe here. People can feel it. Now, it’s about what we do with it.”