[Two bucks] First Friday takes cover

Will a suggested admission fee change the scene at the Downtown arts festival?

Aaron Thompson

Five years after the founding of First Friday, organizers of the Downtown art festival recently faced their toughest decision yet: Should they ask patrons to pay $2 for admission, or face possible extinction?

“We’re asking the community to support us in a new way,” said Nancy Higgins, executive director of Whirlygig Inc., the nonprofit group that runs the festival, after issuing notice of the new “suggested donation” fee. “We want to continue giving this art festival to Las Vegas.”

What pushed Whirlygig —which spends about $11,000 a month on the Downtown street party—to ask for a cover now?

It started when the City of Las Vegas Division of Cultural Affairs (the primary government and monetary sponsor of First Friday) faced budget cuts and decided to reduce its support for First Friday. The funding, which for fiscal year 2006-2007 was $356,842.72 and constituted nearly 15 percent of the department’s $2.25 million budget, will be cut to $80,000.

This reduced amount means that the city will concentrate its funds and resources—including providing lighting, security and portable toilets—on only six of the 12 monthly festivals.

“For a long time we took on the lion’s share [of funding],” said city Cultural Affairs Director Nancy Deaner. “We were here to incubate the festival, but it was never our intention to always fund it.”

Under the trimmed budget, Deaner said the city will help out with First Fridays from March through May and August through September­—the peak months for the festival. The other six months of the year will be the responsibility of Whirlygig to manage and run.

This means in order to keep the festival at its current configuration for thousands of visitors, Whirlygig has to ask patrons for a $2 “suggested donation” to enter the festival area—the zone of booths and stages on Casino Center between California and Colorado streets. (The fee doesn’t apply to the Arts Factory, Main Street, Holsum Lofts or other areas commonly active during First Friday.) In return, patrons get a $2 drink discount at participating Downtown bars. Higgins does not have an estimate of how much will be raised when the new policy starts in February. But she said it wasn’t an easy thing to ask.

“We pondered long and hard over the policy,” Higgins said of a December First Friday board meeting at which the changes were discussed. “It’s been a free event for five years; we didn’t want to ask for a lot of money.”

Reactions from local artists have been mixed.

“I think the people on the board making the decisions for First Friday have done an incredible job keeping First Friday free,” MTZC owner Mark T. Zeilman said. “I’m sure that people in Vegas, who have waited so long for an art scene to develop, will understand that this is necessary and will continue to show their support.”

Artist S.C. Jones, however, is somewhat less optimistic about the new plan. “Thank God they’re finally charging $2 to see tents of real-estate agents and car dealerships,” Jones said. “It used to be there were actually tents of artists, and now every time I go it’s not art anymore. Now it’s just the same thing every time and [has] nothing to do with art.”

Arts Factory curator Cesar Garcia said he wonders if the new policy is right at a time when the Downtown area—in the grip of a mortgage and credit crunch that has stalled several proposed projects and forced many area galleries to close—is struggling.

“Nobody down here is really making any money,” Garcia said. “It’s getting pretty tough around here.”

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