Artistic Differences

The debate over whether First Friday should be a highbrow art affair or anything-goes festival mirrors a struggle over the future of the Arts District

Martin Stein

First Friday. Casino Center Boulevard is crowded with families, punked-out teens, suburbanite couples and moneyed men and women, all in visibly uneasy coexistence. Around them are people with petitions for pot or against condos, a man making animals out of balloons, garish drag queens dressed as nuns, a Jews for Jesus proselytizer and a woman at a card table offering handwriting analysis.

Outside the Funk House, a secondhand store at the intersection of Casino Center and Colorado Avenue, the closed-off streets are filled with tents housing a car from Findlay Volkswagen, sample cocktails from the Sidebar and comely bartenders from Hogs & Heifers. Elsewhere are offerings of kettle corn, ice cream and soft tacos.

North, toward Charleston Boulevard, is a string of folk, reggae and electronic musicians, some more talented than others but all equally loud. Further along, outside of the Arts Factory, children draw with chalk on the pavement, and a group of adults get ready to perform yoga on mats in the parking lot, sounds of water blasting from a portable stereo.

One question: Where's the art?

Despite being in Las Vegas' Arts District on First Friday, you couldn't be faulted for thinking you were in the middle of a neighborhood street fair indistinguishable from any other neighborhood street fair in the country. But the art, both lowbrow and fine, is there. Inside the Arts Factory is a wide range of open studios, exhibiting anything from the expressionist paintings of Shannon Webb and Jennifer Main to the giant Pollack-like creations of Michael Wardle and the more conceptual works by Brian and Jennifer Henry. A few blocks to the west is the Holsum Lofts building, housing canvases by Lincoln Maynard, Jorge Catoni, Michael Griesgraber and more. South of the Holsum Lofts are the Commerce Street Studios, another open-studio building similar to the Arts Factory, home to, among other things, a tattoo parlor and an artist-designed miniature-golf course.

Once every month for the past four years, the Downtown area (bordered by Gass Avenue to the north, Grand Central Parkway to the west, Wyoming Avenue to the south and stretching as far as Seventh Street to the east) becomes engulfed by First Friday, a sprawling combination of open artists' studios, performances and music. But for the last six months or so, a clear dichotomy has emerged, a split between art gallery openings, with their wine, cheese and potential patrons, and a street fair, with its paintings of big-eyed puppies, handmade jewelry and funnel cakes.

It's a battle between north and south, the brewing of a great civil war, testing whether First Friday, or any arts celebration so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

"There's definitely a war going on between the north and south parts of First Friday," says artist Iceberg Slick, part of the 5ive Finger Miscount collective and the driving force behind the recent graffiti and rap event at the Arts Factory in April.

Since its birth six years ago, First Friday has been experiencing the problems of adolescence: clashing cultures, differing visions of the future and questions about money. To the north is Wes Isbutt's Arts Factory and Jack Solomon's S2 Art and Atelier and their desire to see the event develop into a fine-art mixture of open studios, local and national galleries, live-work lofts and sculpture gardens. To the south is the Funk House, Casino Center street fair and Commerce Street Studios, dedicated to lowbrow inclusiveness, free artist tents, subsidized housing for artists and, yes, taco stands.

As condominium development moves into the Casino Center area and the street fair stretches its arms toward the Arts Factory, the two visions have been clashing, with insults and accusations from both sides.

In many ways, it's a battle as old as art itself. The French impressionists of fin de siecle Europe were considered radicals by the artistic establishment, rejected by the Académie des beaux-arts' annual Salon de Paris show, and possibly would have been forgotten but for the intervention of Napoleon III. Years later, Marcel Duchamp flipped a bird at the establishment when he submitted a detached urinal as art and was rejected by an unjuried exhibition.

The tension between lowbrow and fine art will always exist. Art movements always have radical beginnings in which the practitioners struggle for acceptance and hone their styles and skills. Once the establishment opens its doors, other artists join in, advancing and refining the movement. Eventually, stagnation sets in and a group of artists once again reaches back to jump forward.

The question in Las Vegas is whether this creative tension will resolve itself. Will it flower into a thriving arts district that provides income and housing to artists as well as becoming an attraction for locals and perhaps even tourists? Will it wither and split, with fine artists forming a patronized ghetto while lowbrow artists sit in the street surrounded by bad musicians and portable speakers? Or will a middle course be found, in which both continue to live and grow in the same uneasy coexistence as the visitors?

• • •

Like the founding of this continent, the beginnings of First Friday were not the result of one explorer but many. Cindy Funkhouser, owner of the Funk House, first introduced a monthly arts event held on each month's first Friday in the fall of 2002, inspired by a similar event in Portland. (She has claimed in the past that she had been hosting art openings in her junk/antique store on Casino Center since 2000.) She, together with Julie Brewer, ex-owner of the now-closed, art-centric Enigma Café, and Naomi Arin, co-owner of the Dust Gallery, formed the nonprofit Whirlygig Incorporated to help coordinate what had been an eclectic gathering of artists and performers from the start, and to allow them to raise money to pay for the artists' tents, advertising and incidentals.

Whirlygig's mandate has always been about inclusiveness, some would say to a fault. To quote from the nonprofit's website: "Essentially this is a 'street festival' type atmosphere, so the more 'street' oriented your work is the better." While a liberal jury system run by Funkhouser, Brewer and Arin gives many hobbyists the chance to show off and maybe even sell their picture-postcard pieces, it can be a let-down to those who wish to see (and buy) works that strum their aesthetic, emotional and cerebral chords. This is of little concern to Funkhouser, who believes that if you create it, they will come. "I had no expectations when I started First Friday, and I don't now. Let it grow organically," she says, though she does admit "it's hard to keep it fine-art and not a crafts thing."

(Ironically, Portland's First Thursday art walk has now become the exclusive province of the very high-end galleries that would never deign to display the works on Commerce Street. So much so that a group of Oregon artists who feel slighted have started Last Thursday, which incorporates the street fair atmosphere so dear to Funkhouser's heart.)

Then there's Wes Isbutt, owner of the Arts Factory, a 36,000-square-foot warehouse home to more than a dozen artists or groups, including—until recently—the Contemporary Arts Collective. Isbutt has proven his commitment to an arts district as fully and strongly as Funkhouser, placing his own Studio West commercial photography business in the warehouse and opening his doors to the CAC, the Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art and other artists in 1997. Long before there was a there there, Isbutt was organizing artist parties, including the Downtown Summer in the City events, held in conjunction with the Reed Whipple Cultural Center. The warehouse parties, some of which lasted for days, attracted crowds of 300 to 500 people, says Isbutt, before growing into a street festival in 1998 that received attention from The New York Times—a full two years before Funkhouser cleared wall space in the Funk House to make way for artwork. That year, the Arts Factory, along with the Enigma Café, were named the city's best art scene by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

While Funkhouser never had expectations for how First Friday would affect the Arts District, Isbutt has always seen the Arts Factory as a catalyst for turning the seedy neighborhood, with its thrift stores, down-market porn and drug users, into Vegas' answer to highbrow, fine-art SoHo, the now-gentrified New York area that in the 1970s was famous for its explosion of artists and galleries. And a street fair ain't part of that plan. "Cindy has no vision," says Isbutt. "Is it a festival? Are they trying to build the artists? What is it?

"It's fun, it's happening and it's not what we want down here," Isbutt says.

Back in 2000, while Isbutt was struggling to mount his artist parties ("I lost money on the first two parties; the city paid for the next two"), Funkhouser's Whirlygig approached the Arts District neighborhood association, of which he was and is a member, to take part in First Friday. "First Friday was the missing piece of the puzzle," says Isbutt.

With the teaming-up of the Arts Factory and the Funk House, First Friday as a district-wide event was born. Over the next four years, it grew larger and more popular. When NICA moved out (and later closed its doors), the Contemporary Arts Collective became the Arts Factory anchor. The blue-chip Dust Gallery, co-owned by Naomi Arin and Jerry Misko, moved onto Main Street, later followed by the Godt-Cleary Gallery, run by Michele Quinn, with its own art establishment inventory. Local artists such as Dray and Mark T. Zeilman moved into dilapidated cottages across from the Funk House. The city threw in money for a First Friday trolley to ferry visitors around the increasingly large—and increasingly difficult to park in—area. Funkhouser took over a building on Commerce Street, transforming it into an Arts Factory South of sorts, with Zeilman moving in, along with Garald Todd's and Deborah Arin's Archinofsky Gallery and the Obstacle Art Course, a miniature-golf course built by various artists. Holsum Lofts opened, housing galleries for artists Lincoln Maynard, Michael Griesgraber, and as of this month, the CAC.

• • •

With such an explosion of growth in such a short time, and its gathering of strong personalities, it's natural that there would be disagreements, spats and politics worthy of the new Iraqi government.

"With the Arts District in particular, I've witnessed people vying for position politically," says a member of the Downtown arts community who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his prominent standing. "There's jealousy there between Wes and Cindy."

"We will not let the Arts Factory become a swap meet," says Iceberg Slick. "[Funkhouser] invented [First Friday], but we made it cool."

"Anytime you do anything that brings some notoriety—not just because of me, there are many people involved, the city—some people are going to be happy, and some people aren't," says Funkhouser, who appears far more diplomatic and mild than her critics contend. When asked about the central point of tension in the Arts District, that of chardonnay-fueled viewings of abstract expressionism vs. photos of flowers you see while munching on hot dogs, she only has this to say: "I think it's all good. I think it's a really nice mix."

"I'm not really on [Funkhouser's] wavelength for the way things are going with Whirlygig," says Jack Solomon, cofounder with his wife, Carolyn, of S2 Art, a gallery and lithograph production facility next door to the Arts Factory.

As well as running S2 and galleries around the country, and having played a part in SoHo's formation, Solomon has his own big plans for the Arts District, including an artists' live-work studio building, Villa Moderne, based on Paris' Rue Moderne; a high-tech sculpture garden; and another bronze sculpture garden of Las Vegas characters and personalities. "I have the advantage of being a newcomer, and I have the advantage of being ancient in this business," says Solomon, who peppers his speech with references to anything he doesn't like as "ca-ca."

"We're all about entertainment, and we're all about experience," he says. According to Solomon, there are 650 million visits to art museums and 200 million visits to outdoor art fairs each year, far outstripping, he says, visits to all sporting events combined. "Art is the biggest live draw there is."

As well as the Villa Moderne, Solomon has dreams not of an art walk but an art cruise, with trolleys connecting the Arts District with the Fremont Street Experience, the route sprinkled with galleries, live-work spaces, cafes and night spots. His plan is to eventually siphon off 15 percent to 20 percent of the city's 40 million annual visitors to the Arts District. "We will have the greatest Arts District there is, and it won't copy anyone else," he says.

With his clear affection for the idea of art as commerce, Solomon is firmly planted on the same side as Isbutt, who similarly desires to turn the Arts Factory from a big roof covering occasionally opened studios into a collection of artists who keep regular, businesslike hours. "We want people to come down and have a good experience, even if they come down on Tuesday at 2 p.m.," says Yvette Jensen, the Arts Factory's property manager.

Surprisingly, one piece of common ground for Funkhouser, Isbutt and Solomon is that they all approve of the incoming condominiums, a source of displeasure for many of the Commerce Street artists, who have started a petition drive to try to derail the development. The reason for agreement among Funkhouser, Isbutt and Solomon is the understanding that the condos will be full of both artists and fans of artists. Solomon includes Cirque du Soleil performers, Strip musicians and other entertainers and technicians in his definition of artists, and in that sense he's likely correct in betting that Arts District housing will be a hit.

But even here, the three agree only up to a point. Funkhouser chafes at the idea of struggling, lesser-known artists being financially excluded from the area. She was recently quoted in the Las Vegas Sun as saying, "My main concern is that [artists are] losing places where they can afford to live and work." She also wrote an editorial in a recent issue of CityLife in which she argues against the idea that "good" artists would be able to afford to live in the Arts District. "Most artists throughout history have died struggling or unrecognized until long after their death," an oblique reference to Vincent van Gogh. She hopes that subsidies will be offered so creative folks can call some of the live-work lofts home, citing Reno's Riverside Artist Lofts, where rents are kept artificially low with a combination of nonprofit help and state and federal funding.

"Cindy wants to help starving artists and thinks gentrification will keep artists out," says Solomon. "I think that's a lot of ca-ca. Why should artists be subsidized?" There's no reason unsuccessful artists need to live in the Arts District when there's plenty of cheap housing elsewhere in the city or neighboring communities, such as Pahrump. Even Vincent van Gogh couldn't afford to live in Paris, instead settling for Arles, where he did his best work, Solomon says.

"The problem is there are not enough dealers," Solomon says. "What the artists need is a place to sell and a place that is solvent. ... What will make [our arts district] better than anybody else's is what makes America better: capitalism."

There is a lot of strength to that argument. While the creative arts have always been about self-expression, they have also always been about commerce. Michelangelo was a hired hand for the Catholic Church, closer in many respects to modern graphic designers than artsy-fartsy sculptors toiling away in back-yard sheds. Isn't it the dream of every artist to be able to pay the bills with their work?

Answering that capitalist call is Jeff Lapour, developer and owner of the Holsum Lofts, an Oscar Goodman-blessed redevelopment of an old bakery on Charleston and Grand Central that now houses high-end galleries, gift and stationery stores, a restaurant and, beginning this month, the CAC. In total, Holsum offers more than 20 spaces that are being used to sell art, or will be in the future.

But with the CAC's move from the Arts Factory to a much larger space in Holsum, another source of consternation in the Arts District has cropped up. The symbolic heart of the Arts District has been surgically removed from the Arts Factory and transplanted several blocks west, making Holsum Lofts, in Lapour's words, "ground zero for the arts movement Downtown for the moment."

"I'm glad to have them," says Lapour. "We made room for them; we didn't have room for them. I wanted to make sure that they got what they needed because I think they're a big, big piece of what goes on Downtown."

That said, Lapour has heard rumors of complaints and concerns about the CAC's move from the Arts Factory to Holsum, but the politics of the situation perplex him. "We're so not experienced in Las Vegas for this type of urban feel," says Lapour. "We're a block from each other. In any other type of scenario, that's delightful. Here, for whatever reason ... maybe it's controversial. I don't know."

Jacie Maynard dismisses the idea that the collective's move from the Arts Factory to Holsum is controversial or means anything other than perhaps making more people take the trolley or walk a bit farther. "I don't think it's going to impact one way or the other. I really don't," she says. "I believe we have a membership base that's going to support the Contemporary Arts Collective regardless of location. It is to our advantage to stay in the Downtown district."

The Holsum space will give the CAC almost 2,000 square feet to play with, as opposed to the less than 1,000 square feet it had in the Arts Factory. "We're going to have a members' gallery, and we will also have a separate exhibition space. We're going to have a media lab so we can actually train people. We're going to work on building a library and make it a comfortable community space that feels good, that works well and gives back to the community at least as much as they give to us," says Maynard.

But Lapour says there is another motivation for the CAC move: highbrow reasons. "I know that they like the professional level and the professional clientele that the building brings, and the image. I think if you factor it all together, it probably all made a little bit of difference."

• • •

In the meantime, there are other reasons for the discord between north and south. Reasons having to do with money.

Solomon and Isbutt say Funkhouser quit the Arts District neighborhood association because of arguments over Whirlygig not chipping in for security and insurance costs for the First Friday. (Isbutt puckishly admits to being ejected from Whirlygig's meetings for questioning the group's finances, though Jensen rephrases it as being "uninvited.")

Funkhouser maintains, however, that it's not Whirlygig's responsibility to pay for things not associated with Whirlygig, even if they are associated with First Friday. "Private security is up to each property," she says. Now also the property manager for the Commerce Street Studios, seen by many in the arts community as a splintering reaction to the Arts Factory, Funkhouser claims to spend $100,000 per year on First Friday, "the same as the city."

The money comes from sales of Friends and Best Friends of First Friday membership cards (which entitle the bearers to various discounts at area merchants), fees paid to play on Commerce Street Studios' Obstacle Art Course and from fund-raising events such as an annual bachelorette auction. According to Funkhouser, the nonprofit's profits then go to producing First Friday maps (which include the Arts Factory and S2, as well as Dust and G-C Arts galleries); a quarterly full-color newsletter; and the tents used for free by artists selected by Whirlygig.

However, in the next breath, Funkhouser admits to getting "a break" on the tents and that the newsletter is paid for by its advertisers, lending a bit of credence to the concerns voiced by Isbutt and Solomon.

• • •

Another issue tugging at the Arts District's seams is that of the young people attracted to First Friday's street-fair atmosphere, and the alleged rowdiness that comes along with them.

Anyone who has been to First Friday has seen them. Groups of teens wandering about, occasionally with bottles of beer or cups of wine in hand. They enter galleries, and sometimes they are interested enough in the works to examine them or ask questions. But more often, the art is inspiration for jokes rather than creative epiphany. As annoying as that is for the artists who open their studios to the pubic, Isbutt and Solomon claim that incidents of vandalism and vehicle break-ins have risen with the number of youth present.

"Lately, we're going to the lowest common denominator: young, rowdy guys," Solomon says. "But Cindy thinks that's great."

Funkhouser puts no weight to such accusations. "You're talking about 10,000-plus people [coming to First Friday], you're going to have some problems. But the artists and the vendors are happy with the crowds," she says, adding that when she goes outside at the end of each event, she doesn't see anyone "but the guys taking down the tents."

"We do want kids here," Funkhouser says. "It's not just for adults who can buy art in a certain price range. We always wanted to be inclusive. ... These young kids are the art buyers of the future."

That, in essence, is the crux of the situation: the future. Both north and south have ideas of what the Arts District should evolve into. What will the neighborhood and First Friday become? Will the street fair and lowbrow art continue to grow and spread, possibly scaring away the patrons artists want and need? Will high-end galleries be opened, displaying works by Las Vegans and non-locals but creating an atmosphere that excludes the teenagers who are tomorrow's potential art-buyers? Will the district be connected to Fremont Street and the Neon Museum or the Strip and Bellagio Art Gallery, bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists who might return home with canvases by Dray or Jerry Misko under their arms? Can an alliance be forged, a compromise reached where the district thrives with live-work lofts, galleries and art walks with, perhaps, an unjuried street festival once a month?

One reason it's hard to see into the future of the Arts District is because we live in a city unlike any other. This isn't Portland or New York. We don't blink when we see Elvis impersonators at the mall, we offer marriage ceremonies in Klingon and we implode more than we redevelop. Like it or not, those truths mean we'll never have Portland's Pearl District and we'll never have SoHo. Our Arts District and First Friday will be as unique as the city from which they were born. As for the rest, to borrow an expression ideally suited for Las Vegas, the dice are in the air.

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