Courthouse Museum Marks ‘A Decade Of Art Hopping’

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
October 4, 2018

When Kevin Hammon and Kimberly Zamora were 35 and 32, respectively, they were trying to work things out — in their boyfriend-girlfriend life together, and their individual careers.

Hammon, a tech wizard, just opened a computer repair shop on Main Street in Merced.

Zamora, a Stan State art major, created a modern fashion store a couple doors down.

They were both very ambitious, but there was one dark cloud looming over what otherwise would be a sunny horizon.

Simply put: It was 2008, and Downtown was dead.

Hammon and Zamora looked around and didn’t understand why there were not hoards of people walking around the various shops at peak hours of shopping days.

“We just wanted to get more foot traffic for our shops, and the other stores downtown,” Hammon said. “We were thinking about doing an art show as an opener for Kimberly’s store, ‘Tallulah Brigitta.’ Then the owner of the boutique across the street said she wanted to participate. She actually went over to the Arts Center to see if any artists wanted to join in. … So we talked, and talked, and talked more about it. Then we started thinking: ‘What if we don’t keep it to one block?’ … ‘What if we spread the event out more?’”

They were thinking big, and the ideas were flowing. Soon the quarterly Merced Art Hop was born.

It was the start of a major event for Merced that unites artists with store owners to create a multitude of exhibitions and performances on Main Street for all to enjoy.

To honor the accomplishment, the Merced County Courthouse Museum will open “A Decade of Art Hopping” exhibit this Thursday, Oct. 4, at 5 p.m. The opening program is FREE, and will feature a performance by Dance Saute, live music by Mariposa Cox and Azriel Montalvo, and an art demonstration by Jennifer Dudley. There is also an activity for kids where they can design and create their own Art Hop Rabbit prints.

Taking the initiative

Hammon and Zamora have come a long way since they first took at look at the city’s 2007 Strategy Guide that detailed the idea of creating an arts district downtown.

The problem the pair encountered, was that the city, at the time, seemed more interested in restoring buildings for investment — like the Loft apartments — before introducing the actual “art plan.”

“We needed an event right away, not something we were wondering when, if ever, was going to happen,” Hammon pointed out.

At first, the couple knew little about organizing a community event, but they had a lot of energy, and they loved to get out on the street and promote.

“It was pretty exciting,” Zamora said. “It was cool to visit the college and the university, and getting a great response. We were doing a lot of tabling. So many people were interested.”

The very first Art Hop occurred on a Thursday night in October of 2008 — the same evening as the annual “Lights On Afterschool’ celebration that the Office of Education presents on Main Street. The double event booking was an example of how communication was lacking in the city’s event planning. However, the street closure for the Lights On activity actually helped bring exposure to the Art Hop.

From there, both Hammon and Zamora just kept going and going and going, like Energizer Bunnies.

They decided on a quarterly event on Saturdays to keep people in town on weekends that always seemed slower that they should be. They partnered with the Merced County Times to get the word out. They held a local contest to come up with the official Art Hop Rabbit logo. They secured 501c3 nonprofit status and a board of directors. They created a website. They partnered with the city, and after several years, secured significant funding to expand the event. They created themed Art Hops, featuring the work of local organizations. They worked to beautify downtown store fronts, and placing works of art in windows. They entered floats in all the downtown parades. They created the Art Hop magazine. They helped build momentum for the creation of the Main Street Association. And most recently, they opened up the Epekel Gallery on Canal Street that serves the community with exhibits and workshops.

The Art Hop got so big over the years that eventually Hammon and Zamora closed their shops.

Today the event attracts up to 300 artists, as well as 12,000 art fans annually. Some 30 downtown businesses participate on a regular basis.

Just keep hopping …

“We never really thought about where we would end up,” Hammon said. “It was just go, go, go, go. I guess we thought we would start it and then a ‘real’ organization would take it over. … It ended up taking over our lives. Over the years, we filled up the house, the cars, and the storage unit — everything was about the Art Hop. It was everywhere and all over. It was overwhelming.”

Hammon and Zamora estimate that they still conduct some 90 percent of the work, but they do have lots of support from community volunteers, especially during the quarterly presentations. They also do several fundraising events throughout the year, including a Scavenger Hunt and a Pub Crawl.

“It’s more than an event,” Hammon said. “It’s become a tradition for local families. And I think we are helping to change the socio-economic scenery downtown. It’s an all-inclusive event.”

Says Zamora, “I’ve changed a lot, and I think the Art Hop has changed me.”

Hammon adds, “Sometimes we get frustrated, but then we settle down and think about how much we have learned. … I never would have gone to a City Council meeting if it wasn’t for the Art Hop. I never would have been part of the Main Street Association if it wasn’t for the Art Hop. I never would have tapped into my own artistic talent, and created my own photography exhibit, if it wasn’t for the Art Hop. .. And then we hear back from people. One parent stopped us and said: ‘My whole family loves the Art Hop. It’s the one thing that we can do together, and we are so thankful it is here in Merced.’ Hearing things like that helps us to hold on, and get back to work.”

Local talent

The Art Hop has also showcased local artists who might not otherwise have the opportunity to display their work to hundreds of people. Photographer John Miller started out as a young student interested in the Art Hop. Today Miller works as a professional photographer, and a staffer for the County Times. Another student, LuLu Gamez, took her art passion to UC Merced and graduated. She now works at the Enrichment Center downtown inspiring others to express themselves artistically.

Today, Hammon is 45, and Zamora is 43.

They will be there, handing out fliers and directing art fans to exhibits, during the next Art Hop set for Oct. 20 — the 10th anniversary event.

Meanwhile the gallery has workshop classes and exhibits scheduled through February. The gallery is open Wednesday through Friday, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Hammon and Zamora are also happy to partner with the Multicultural Arts Center, the Main Street Association, the city’s new Downtown Committee, and the new city Arts Council.

“Before everyone was doing their own thing,” Hammon said. “Now it’s like everyone is coming together, and getting along, and going after the same goal.”

For more about the Courthouse exhibit, please contact the museum at 723-2401.


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