“First Friday happens wherever someone does something interesting on that day,” says Joey Vanas, executive director of the festival’s newly formed foundation. That sentiment reflects not only a broad interpretation of the 15-year-old tradition, but how First Friday happens—for galleries, suburban high-schoolers, Downtowners—when it’s not officially happening.
Such was the circumstance over the past few months in the 18b Arts District, when organizers mothballed the fest due to low funds and, more importantly, a reorganization in the wake of First Friday LLC donating its assets to a new nonprofit. The 17-member First Friday Foundation is now tasked with making the operation solvent and more efficient and spurring community engagement—which means changes, some of which will bear out during the festival’s “Back to Our Future” return on February 5.
How those adjustments will be received by the community, especially the ever-evolving Arts District, is uncertain. Though the foundation has garnered additional sponsors, the official festival still requires a down-scaling of production and expenses. As such, a shrunken footprint now encompasses the area around Art Square just north of Charleston Boulevard. Galleries and businesses south of it wanting to produce an event must arrange and pay for any street closures, infrastructure and entertainment—which First Friday used to do while other entities piggybacked, according to Vanas. But the development could also divide the neighborhood during the event, and worsen any disconnect between some Downtowners and First Friday.
Roxie Amoroso of Exile on Main Street boutique worries her First Friday-related events and her business—including Cowtown Guitars, co-owned by her husband Jesse—will suffer as a result of the footprint shift. She says her typical walk-in customer is the type who drives from Summerlin for First Friday, then discovers Exile. “That woman might not be exposed now to Main Street because First Friday has been moved. … It’s not fair that we pay elevated rent based on the crowds First Friday would bring when it used to be down here.” Amoroso adds that there’s a lack of communication from First Friday, especially regarding its schedule.
Photo Bang Bang owner and 18b board member Curtis Walker shares Amoroso’s latter concern, saying First Friday “does not communicate properly,” which endangers unity between the community and the foundation. But he doesn’t fret over the notion of official and unofficial First Friday happenings, mostly because it worked before near his business, when Derek Stonebarger (then with Theatre 7) pulled his own permits. “We had a pod of activity, it brought people over,” Walker says. “It was very grassroots, very independent and better than corporate oversight and programming.”
Initial speed bumps will be solved and give way to a more consistent and sustainable First Friday, asserts Eden Art Studio and Gallery co-founder Justin Lepper, who also serves on the 18b and foundation boards. “The goal is to make everyone feel more included,” he says. “The businesses will have a different opinion after we run this for three months.”