First Friday downsizes for the summer

First Friday.
Courtesy of Whirlygig, Inc.

Bad news: First Friday, the outdoor community arts festival held in the downtown Arts District every month for the past seven years, is drastically downsizing for the summer and maybe longer.

“Currently it’s planned to come back in September, but it depends on the city budget and our own fundraising,” says Cindy Funkhouser, one of the founders and current organizers of First Friday.

To meander through the festival on a warm summer night was to take a stroll in a city apart from Las Vegas, a city where the streets were filled with bursts of color and live music and talented individuals expressing and sharing their creations and celebrating culture, community and art.

Artist Ru Hernandez.

Artist Ru Hernandez.

Now that dynamic scene will evaporate, leaving only a string of art galleries and music venues. First Friday will no longer hold the outdoor portion of the event or close the area to traffic. With drastically reduced attractions and the lack of a pedestrian-only street fair, First Friday may be locked in a vicious cycle where less attendees equals less funding equals less attendees. Or, the cost-cutting measure could simply be a temporary solution to the recession-caused decreased sponsorship and the only way to keep First Friday alive and primed for a future revival.

Up until February of last year, the event was free and hugely popular. Some came for the art, some for the party vibe, and the result was that Green Valley yuppies, back alley punks, serene families, buzzed twenty-somethings, middle-aged connoisseurs and rambunctious adolescents mingled among the art.

Artist Bryan Hainer.

Artist Bryan Hainer.

Managing that crowd, which at the peak of its popularity reached up to 10,000 people, was not cheap. The booths, tents, stages and live performance artists that took over Casino Center Boulevard between California and Colorado Streets and the fencing, barricading and presence of Metro officers around the area, in addition to power and lighting to show off the artwork, cost around $10,000 every month.

“I personally paid for everything when it first started,” says Funkhouser. “It was a smaller organic thing, similar to what we’re doing now. The city came on board and paid for trolleys, and we paid for everything else.”

Funkhouser is the president of the nonprofit group Whirlygig, Inc, which organizes First Friday with the help of funding from sponsors, including the city and local businesses. But First Friday was in financial turmoil as early as the beginning of last year, when it began requesting a $2 donation from all attendees.

“It didn’t help enough; it didn’t bring in $10,000 a month, that’s for sure,” says Funkhouser.

First Friday in the Arts District.

The festival is the latest arts and culture victim of the economic downturn, following the closure of the Las Vegas Art Museum and an abbreviated season for the Nevada Ballet Theatre.

In recent months, sponsorship of the First Friday has gone down 40 percent, and the annual fundraiser (held in October 2008) raised 20 percent less than previous years' events.

“We lost some sponsorship and it’s very hard to get new sponsorship,” Funkhouser laments.

While the streets will now be open to traffic and will no longer be filled with booths, artists and musicians, the festival hasn’t completely died.

Art galleries like the Arts Factory and music venues like the Box Office will remain open, along with individual artist studios, antique and vintage clothing stores, restaurants and bars from 6-10 p.m.

Parking will still be available at the Clark County Government Center, where trolleys pick up every 15-20 minutes for a tour of the Arts District and of the downtown farmer’s market and nearby Fremont East District.

A smattering of musicians and artists will dot the sidewalks, but only about 18, instead of the usual 30.

“Maybe there will be more next month,” says Funkhouser.

Hopefully the diminished art scene will weather the summertime storm and come fall, the money and patrons will return and the festival, like a vibrant seasonal flower, will bloom again.


Jennifer Grafiada

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