On the second Friday of every month, Hamilton’s arts and culture hub, James Street North, is transformed by a decade-old phenomenon called Art Crawl.
These now famous art crawls provide a one-stop shop to experience the city’s burgeoning art, music, and food scenes, while shopping local, people watching, and taking in some city sights all at once.
While there’s no strict rules or schedule, the general gist is this: galleries, studios, stores and restaurants stay open late to welcome thousands of visitors who fill the sidewalks to the brim. They start arriving around 6 or 7 p.m. and pack James Street North and surrounding streets until late.
There is a welcoming energy surrounding Art Crawl that’s hard to find elsewhere – everyone is welcome, it’s approachable, friendly, and completely unpretentious. While art crawls have spread to other cities, Hamilton’s Art Crawl has always been held up as a unique gold standard. It’s evolved organically and everyone contributes to making it what it is, from the spectators to the artists.
The best way to experience Art Crawl is to set out on foot and explore. Each month is different – you never know what you will stumble across. Here’s a quick primer to use as a jumping off point.
Art Crawl is about experiencing what’s happening outside as much as it is being inside the various venues. Dress for the weather because you’ll be popping in and out of the many attractions along your ‘Crawl’. You’ll pass artisans, visual artists, and entertainers. Whether you purchase a one-of-a-kind handmade item or drop some money into a busker’s hat, you’ll be supporting local artists along the way.
One space to find artists all in one place is Makers’ Market located outside of historic Christ Church Cathedral. As you approach, you’ll hear the friendly sounds of the amazing Bill & the Art Crawlers playing music to gathering crowds outside Cathedral Place.
Upon entering the courtyard you will find a variety of artisans and food vendors under tents and twinkling lights.
The gallery spaces along James Street North host rotating exhibits usually in conjunction with the monthly Art Crawl.
- Assembly Gallery: Another artist run co-operative, The Assembly, located just off Cannon Street, is a contemporary gallery run by over 15 professional artists who rotate showcasing their work in the space.
- HAVN: Take a quick turn down Barton Street, off James North, and you’ll find another collaborative space, the Hamilton Audio Visual Node. The artists feature eclectic and experimental exhibits from their co-founders as well as other artists in the community. They also host live music and DJs.
- Hamilton Artists Inc.: One of the major galleries on James North, you’ll find new exhibits here all the time as well as twice-a-year craft fairs. Founded in 1975, a group of local artists saw the need for a professional exhibition space which went on to become an important arts anchor in the city.
- You, Me, Gallery: When Art Crawl began ten years ago, it was just a handful of galleries who started the monthly tradition, with You, Me, Gallery leading the way. Loose Cannon and The Print Studio were also among the first few who coordinated their new exhibit openings, and Art Crawl grew from that point on. Be sure to stop into these Art Crawl pioneers each month.
- The Tourism Hamilton Visitor Centre: Located in the beautifully restored Lister Building (28 James St. North), the Visitor Centre is open for Art Crawls 6-9pm. It’s the perfect spot to learn more about the city and pick up one of the city’s popular “Hamilton is Home” t-shirts along with other great locally sourced items.
For some retail therapy, there are many independent shops along James Street North selling a range of unique and local products.
- White Elephant: This boutique is a staple of the street and popular enough to see a second location open in Westdale. Co-owners Hollie Pocsai and Jane LaBatte carefully hand-pick gorgeous Canadian-made clothing, jewellery, and accessories. Look out for their monthly designer focused pop-ups!
- Blackbird Studios: You will be dazzled by the stunning handmade dresses of designer Blackbird Studios. Their pieces are now iconic to the city – instantly recognizable when you see one of their beautiful models on a runway. In Blackbird’s own words, their pieces cater to the demands of “rockstars, rollergirls, burlesque artistes, and fashion misfits.”
- La Bichette: Owner Lauren Ricottone does a wonderful job curating this contemporary lifestyle boutique. From women’s apparel and accessories, beauty products, and gift items, the shop is absolutely lovely.
- Pretty Grit: Find unique home décor and gift items – everything from paper goods, tea, bath and apothecary goodies, and housewares like pillows, mirrors, lighting and more.
- The Hamilton Store: It doesn’t get more local than a shop curated with all Hamilton-based, locally made products. Prints, cards, food, condiments, mugs, candles… you name it! Owner Donna Reid is also always happy to chat about the city. If hitting up an Art Crawl during the summer, don’t miss Hamilton Store’s Artist in the Courtyard series, featuring local artist shows set in the store’s beautiful courtyard out back. A peaceful oasis amidst the bustle of a busy art crawl.
- Mixed Media: Owner Dave Kuruc recently passed his milestone decade on James Street North. The shop features wonderful Hamilton souvenirs as well as paper good and art supplies. Dave is also a wealth of Hamilton knowledge!
Delicious food and drink is a must to keep you energized while you ‘Crawl. Hamilton’s culinary scene is on fire right now – chefs are cooking up innovative and mouth-watering meals at every turn, and James Street North is no exception.
- Mulberry Coffeehouse: A major pillar of James North, Mulberry is a community hub where you can stop in for coffee, baked goods, sandwiches and salads. Kick back on their patio with a cocktail or local beer. They also frequently feature live music.
- Mesa: Chef Veronica Sanchez is no stranger to James North – her former Mexican restaurant was an original staple of the street. She now owns and operates at her new home, Mesa, serving up more of that phenomenal, authentic Mexican cuisine.
- The Burnt Tongue: These guys know their soup! The dish up a new variety daily, in addition to burgers, fries, salads and grilled cheeses.
For an Art Crawl nightcap or a rest-stop during your walk, there are many spots to grab a pint of craft beer or a top-notch cocktail.
- Bar Sazerac: New Orleans-inspired cocktail bar to pop in for an exquisite cocktail. The bartenders are incredibly knowledgeable and can find just the right drink for you. Choose one off the menu or pick a base and let them work their magic.
- The Brain: A Hamilton dive in the best possible way. This keystone of Art Crawl’s humble beginnings, the neighbourhood bar began about eight years ago by Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan who has dubbed it “a bar for people who don’t like bars.” It’s dimly lit, full of colourful characters, and has an extensive, ever-rotating beer selection. You’ll also find coffee, a small menu, and don’t forget to try the pies (both sweet and savoury). Bonus: board games and an intimate back patio.
- WORK: Situated right next to live music venue This Ain’t Hollywood, WORK is not only a go-to for a drink but their menu is filled with a unique menu ranging from Asian-infused items to other comfort foods. Think avocado fries, kimchi nachos, ramen, fried chicken, even good old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs.
- Academica: It doesn’t get more James Street North than this one. It’s a hidden gem that you will only find if you venture down a narrow hallway beside Charred – climb the stairs and you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a giant airplane on the ceiling! Cheap beer, foosball… it’s always a fun hangout spot.
- Merit Brewing: Brand new brewpub with stunning, 100+ capacity interior and patio, with rotating beer list which are all brewed in house. Delicious menu specializing in sausages and other beer-friendly bites – they are a welcome addition to the neighbourhood.
Live music is an important part of Art Crawl, from buskers to bands in bars.
- Dr. Disc: The premiere Hamilton record store also hosts the rooftop concert series Raise the Roof during the May – August Art Crawls. Drop by the parking lot to watch an awesome lineup of local talent. (pictured above: Hamilton artist Jessy Lanza performing at a Raise the Roof concert)
- Zyla’s Music & Menu: Zyla’s must also be on your food and drink list. Everything is made with love by one-woman force Cat Coppolino – sharable items like charcuterie boards, baked brie, flatbreads and mains like paninis, pasta, meatloaf. While you dine you’ll be treated to live music spanning genres from jazz ensembles to singer songwriters.
- This Ain’t Hollywood: One of the best venues in the city, “The Saint” has been holding it down on James North as a proud rock’n’roll North End bar since 2009. You’ll be treated to major touring acts as well as local bands from every genre imaginable.
Kristin Archer is a lifelong Hamiltonian and the blogger behind the popular blog I Heart Hamilton where she inspires every local to “be a tourist in your own city.” She’s passionate about discovering her hometown, new experiences and sharing all that Hamilton has to offer. Catch Kristin Fridays at 2 p.m. when she hosts “I Heart Hamilton” on 93.3 CFMU and follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Kristin’s #MyHamilton blog offers an insider’s look at Hamilton’s buzz-worthy arts and culture scene including James Street North staple Art Crawl, great music festivals and venues, outdoor events, theatre, dance and specialty shopping.