Leesburg has long attracted antiques shoppers and Civil War buffs. Now a growing roster of artists who work, teach, exhibit and perform in town is making the historic district a destination for arts patrons.

At least eight galleries now extend their hours on the first Friday of each month, up from two in 1997, when merchants began discussing the need for commercial diversity and a livelier night life downtown.

The First Friday Gallery Walk was intended to give browsers and tourists an opportunity to enjoy downtown without worrying about traffic or parking. The hope was that merchants would give them more reasons to include Leesburg in their plans. If you stay open, organizers said, they will come.

They did. First Friday has grown to include about 20 merchants and five restaurants, and the galleries are still the heart of the matter, attracting not only first-time tourists but also repeat customers who keep up with changing exhibits and favorite artists. Eight galleries are members of the Loudoun Arts Council and share the cost and manpower to promote the event, but other galleries also stay open for First Friday.

Leesburg residents Susan and Bob Horne are regulars who seek new exhibits among participating galleries lining King and Loudoun streets.

"This event really instills a sense of community," Susan Horne said during a reception in November for watercolor artist Leonida Ivanetich at The Potomac Gallery. "We look forward to this night each month. It's a chance to see old friends, and, of course, we enjoy the art."

In the Thanksgiving afterglow that begins the Christmas season, December's First Friday is especially festive. In addition to wine tastings and holiday shopping, tomorrow's schedule includes strolling carolers from Leesburg's Heritage High School and a performance of traditional and patriotic tunes by the Loudoun Border Guards Fife and Drum Corps.

Loudoun Museum is offering free admission to its new needlework exhibit, and several galleries are hosting "Meet the Artist" receptions.

Cindy Hollister, a member of the Loudoun Arts Council's board of directors, said it is no accident that more artists are settling in Loudoun County and selling in Leesburg.

"Loudoun's beauty plays a big part in the concentration of artists here," she said. "Artists want to be surrounded by beauty, and they come to a place where they can feel inspired. We also have a very healthy hometown community of volunteers and supporters. When you combine that with a strong talent pool . . . it creates a thriving arts scene."

According to Julie Doiron, co-owner of The Potomac Gallery and president of the arts council, First Friday is a way to make the arts scene accessible, to eliminate the feeling that galleries are only for those in the know.

"It's a fun night for both residents and visitors," Doiron said. "You can meet artists, see your friends and listen to music. This kind of event takes the scariness out of visiting an art gallery."

Deirdre Begley of Reston attended last month's opening of works by nature photographer Mary Louise Ravese at Photoworks. "I enjoy the ambience and the open and friendly atmosphere," she said while browsing a display of black and white prints.

The galleries cater to a range of artistic tastes, with realism leading the pack. Bucolic landscapes, equestrian portraits and formal still-life studies predominate. But several venues showcase such nontraditional art as photography, pottery and mixed media.

Ruth Clinard of McLean, a featured artist at Gallery 222 in November, said she thinks she has figured out what's behind the monthly convergence on Leesburg. "This is the only town I can think of in the Washington area where you can walk to everything."

If art was the catalyst behind First Friday, merchants have been its driving force. Some are taking it even further.

"First Friday has been successful for us," said Barb Gardner, owner of Black Shutter Antiques Shoppes. "So with encouragement from the Town of Leesburg, we have started staying open every Friday night through December."

Downtown restaurant managers say they're pleased with the number of people who stop in during and after the Gallery Walk.

Carrie Whitmer, co-owner of Lightfoot Restaurant, said her First Friday patrons include many of the gallery and shop owners who come to wind down and compare notes after gallery walkers leave.

Leesburg's First Friday Gallery Walk takes place every month except January from 6-9 p.m. Maps of participating businesses are available at Loudoun Museum, 16 Loudoun St. For information, contact the Loudoun Arts Council at 703-777-7838 or www.loudounarts.org.

Barbara McKee looks at the exhibits at Gallery 222 at November's First Friday Gallery Walk in Leesburg. The walks started in 1997.The ART House welcomed walkers last month.