Zappos CEO’s purchase of First Friday shocks Arts District gallery owners

First Friday, a monthly celebration of art, in the downtown Arts District.

News that a crew involved in Zappos, including CEO Tony Hsieh, are buying the First Friday trademark and taking the event out of the hands of non-profit Whirlygig has the Arts District community buzzing.

But just as surprising as the announcement itself, is that business owners in the area had no idea this was happening. Apparently, those involved with the deal hadn’t spoken with some of the main Arts District players and gallery owners, which concerns Blackbird Studios owner Gina Quaranto, who has been involved in First Friday since 2001 and built her career from an artist on the street at the monthly event.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is shown at a Las Vegas City Council meeting Dec. 1, 2010, when it was officially announced the existing City Hall building would be used as the headquarters for Zappos.

Mostly though, Quaranto and others are excited about the change and the money and marketing that might be poured into the monthly art festival.

“Tony Hsieh is such a forward thinker. He’s got a lot of ideas so it could be interesting,” says Victoria Hart, gallery director at Brett Wesley gallery, which sits on the corner of Charleston and Casino Center Boulevard. “They have more bandwidth to communicate to a broader audience. The problem with some Downtown people who have been there so long is that they’re not open to new ideas. Fresh blood would be really great.”

Hsieh is moving his online retail corporation into the soon-to-be-vacated City Hall building and has said that he wants the company to be involved in Downtown's redevelopment. He recently donated $5,000 to artist Jerry Misko’s Downtown mural project and says that his role with First Friday is simply that of a silent investor: “I had heard that it had run into financial challenges and I didn't want the event to go away. I think it's a great event for downtown Las Vegas. I would like to see it continue and grow so I decided to personally support it financially.”

Hsieh didn't say what the group paid for the trademark, but said that they will likely spend $500,000 over the next 12 months to keep the event going.

The news is the second surprise to hit the Arts District this summer. In July, Whirlygig Inc. announced that First Friday would be canceled for August and September. Business owners not directly involved in the Whirlygig portion of the festival went into panic mode trying to alert First Friday visitors that their business would remain open for the event, which draws thousands to the Arts District each month.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said in a statement that she is “thrilled” with this new partnership and that it will “infuse additional resources and new energy into this grand downtown festival.”

In the past, Whirlygig has worked with the City of Las Vegas on street closures, paid insurance, pulled permits and handled the music stages and artist tents outside the Funk House. But Whirlygig officials say the event became too big for just a couple of people to be running and that they need to work on streamlining the event and working with the City on how to keep it manageable and safe—responsibilities that will now likely fall to the new owners.

“It will be great to see if they’re going to set up some sort of committee and get the community involved or if they’re just going to take it over,” Hart adds.

First Friday 08/05/2011

The Review-Journal’s Doug Elfman reported that the four involved in purchasing the LLC are Zappos CEO Hsieh, Zappos partner Fred Mossler, developer Andrew Donner and marketer Joey Vanas, and that the group plans on expanding First Friday to other Downtown areas and bringing in "better artists," including out-of-town artists.

Vanas said this afternoon that a meeting has been scheduled for tomorrow with gallery owners and that the group has plans to listen to what the community– gallery owners, artists, vendors, city representatives and attendees—has to say about First Friday. “These people have been a part of this community event for nine years and we will learn as much as possible from them about how we can help make it the best First Friday event you will find in any city,” Vanas says. “We also want to extend the marketing and commerce of art in Downtown Vegas to more than just the First Friday of each month.

"This event has been very positive for the city of Las Vegas and First Friday's return in October is beyond exciting. We're committed to a continuing investment in Downtown and to supporting the community that backs the growth of such a culturally-active, and historical, area of Las Vegas."

Marty Walsh, owner of Trifecta Gallery inside the Arts Factory, says that it sounds like the new operators are looking for voices in the community: “They’re looking for guidance and steering. That’s a really good sign. I think they’re in for the greater good, so I welcome it. We need a bigger audience, anyway.”

Quaranto says she's trying to have a positive perspective, but that she isn’t quite sure how she feels about it.

“This is overnight. We went from ‘Whirlygig is on hiatus and will be back in October’ to ‘Zappos is taking over.’ I’m excited for change. Change is good, but change is also scary. I don’t know any of these people, and for me not to know any of these people is strange, because I know everybody,” Quaranto says. “I just hope that they include listening to people who have been involved in First Friday for years. We didn’t work so hard so out-of-town artists can reap the benefits while we’re brushed aside. That’s probably not their intent, but I don’t know that because I haven’t had one discussion with them.”

Quaranto also says she wishes that they would have used the word “different” rather than “better” in regards to additional artists.

“It’s not easy to start something from scratch,” she continues. “Anyone can move to Portland or any other city and mooch off their already created art scene.”

As for the “better art,” Hart, at Brett Wesley gallery says, “It’s great to get better art, but you have to have a community that supports better art. You have to educate the community about better art or buying art in general.”

This could be that chance.

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Kristen Peterson

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