When the Contemporary Arts Center started closing early on First Friday this spring, not everybody was surprised. Artists and art enthusiasts have long argued the monthly festival that draws thousands Downtown is no longer an art event. Gone are the trolleys shuttling visitors to art destinations; the First Friday website doesn’t list galleries; and business owners say those there for the party are crowding out art supporters.
A few critics of CAC’s move denounced it on social media, arguing it closed off the exposure of art to the community. So why did CAC do it? “We have limited resources and we weren’t seeing benefits,” says CAC board co-president Aurore Giguet. “People were just passing through, asking to use the bathroom. First Friday really isn’t an art event anymore. We want to promote Preview Thursday and the fact that there is art here every day of the month. The crowd at First Friday isn’t there to see the art.” First Friday managing partner Joey Vanas did not respond before deadline.
Down at Emergency Arts, TastySpace gallery owner Dana Satterwhite has also started skipping out on First Friday, though he might leave his gallery open in his absence. “I’m shifting my focus,” he says. “When I opened in February 2012, First Friday seemed like the art night in the city, but now my building is pretty empty. If I know there is a volume of people, I’m going to be there, but I want to be efficient with my time and energy.”
Hard as it might be to imagine, First Friday began 10 years ago as a quiet art crawl with a handful of galleries drawing locals interested in looking at art, talking about art and visit with like-minded art supporters. But when vendors, street closures and music stages swelled the crowds, business owners debated the direction of the booming festival, eventually reclaiming their art crawl on Preview Thursday, the night before First Friday.
Still, not everyone is closing shop on First Friday. Some gallery owners say they’re able to reach more people on those nights than during the week. Gina Quaranto, owner of Blackbird Studios on Commerce Street (where a First Friday trolley used to stop), says it’s significantly quieter on First Friday these days, but that she plans to remain open. “We’ve taken a hit,” she says. “It’s harder to get people to come down here. They’re not interested in experiencing art. And people who want to look at art don’t want to weed through all the chaos. There are just too many crowds and parking problems.”
But, Quaranto says, “I will never close on First Friday. I still believe there are people who are going to make their way down here.”