Art on the Run: Austin’s Artist Run Club

Every Wednesday, people run around Austin to get a good look at contemporary art.

No, really, they’re going for a run. To see art. At 6:30 a.m.

These people are part of Artist Run Club (ARC), a group “for artists and art lovers who run, and runners who love art.” In 2021, Phillip Niemeyer formed the club with artists Amanda Julia “Mandy” Steinback and Giampiero “GP” Selvaggio. Niemeyer, who owns Northern-Southern, an Austin gallery that nurtures and champions new expression in art, design, and culture, is a new runner. As a swimmer first, he was somewhat forced to start running during the pandemic. “When COVID closed all the pools, I freaked out, like oh no, what do I do? So I started running. It hurt for a year and I love it.”

He’s not alone. According to several surveys and reports, including ones from Runner’s World and Nielsen Sports, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a running boom. But what, you might wonder, does this have to do with art?

“Coming out of the pandemic, I was interested in arts programming that was creating community or fostering community, and programming that brought art into everyday life and vice versa, breaking down the ways we see art, instead of always at the exhibition opening with the cheap wine or whatever. It’s tiresome,” says Niemeyer. “What other ways can there be to see? And so the Artist Run Club is a hybrid idea—we’re gonna mix running with art. That’s all there is to it.”

Once a week, ARC meets at a different arts venue in Austin that opens their doors early for club members. Then the group runs three to four miles with a two-mile option, the details of which are posted to ARC’s Instagram feed, along with Niemeyer’s drawing of a running shoe and the all-important group photo. Niemeyer also hand draws each week’s running route.

Running clubs aren’t a new idea, and some more recent clubs have been formed around a specific purpose. For example, Native Women Running focuses on inclusion and visibility for “historically excluded runners.” Runners for Public Lands “organizes runners for environmental justice, advocacy, and conservation.” ARC’s purpose—to see art, then go for a run—is admittedly a bit unexpected.

“In the context of the art scene, a lot of people don’t understand how 20 people are getting up at 6:30 in the morning to do anything,” says Niemeyer.

Artist Christos Pathiakis tells me that joining the club “was a good chance to get to know [Phillip] better and meet other people, which initially I hadn’t thought much about, but it’s turned out to be an amazing group of people. I come away from some of the runs and some of the experiences together with a feeling of peace and joy. It’s almost embarrassing to describe it like that, but it just makes me feel happy, even though I’m torturing myself.”

A recent route took the club from Lora Reynolds Gallery, through Clarksville to the Haskell House, and then to Pease Mansion. Additional meet-ups included Tarek Atoui: The Whisperers at the Contemporary Austin, the East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), and Going Down, a group show at Northern-Southern that featured Pathiakis’s work.

So why do runners want to see art, and why do artists want to run, at 6:30 a.m.?

Artist, runner, and club organizer Preetal Shah says, “I can’t speak for all the runners, but there’s something beautifully surreal about immersing myself in art, at a gallery, when I’m half-awake, in a semi-dreamlike state, and then going for a run. It makes for a great mental and physical start to my day.”

For ARC member Kathie Sever, a runner, a mom, and owner of Ft. Lonesome who ran her first art club run about a year ago, adds, “Often Phillip is able to talk the artist or curator into coming in early to give us a private art talk. It’s such a special and intimate way to both see art and be offered the opportunity to talk about it with others. There’s a delightful absence of pretension or scenesters willing to show up that early in short shorts.”

One of Sever’s all-time favorite runs was to see Green Eyes, a recent show of paintings by Michelle Marchesseault at Northern-Southern. “I found her paintings to be incredibly lush and emotional. I felt like I could have stared at them for hours.” Another club favorite was The Color Inside, James Turrell’s Skyspace on the University of Austin campus, just in time for sunrise.

Runner and physical therapist Alyssa O’Krent has been attending the weekly ARC runs consistently ever since she joined the club around the same time she was looking for ways to get the word out about her newly opened practice AOK Physical Therapy and show up in her community. For her, ARC is a way to access art that opens her eyes and heart. Plus, she says, “We runners are up early and running anyway, why not add this cool element to the middle of our week?”

And Niemeyer confides, “I love the run club. I have theories about why it’s such a wonderful thing. First, we’re not doom-scrolling first thing in the morning. Instead, we wake up and look at art. Then we all go on a run together. The coffee is just starting to work. With art on our minds, we feel the run endorphins. There’s the shoulder-to-shoulder conversation, beautiful and healthy. People say things to me like, ‘Oh my God. I got up at 6:30 in the morning, saw an art show, and ran three miles. I feel like I accomplished so much and I’m not even awake yet.’”

The appeal of running out to see art has perhaps never been stronger, at least in Austin.

“When I draw the routes, I think of it as a drawing practice on a large scale,” he adds. “I like to think we are drawing the city.”