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Joe Downtown: First Friday takes a step back toward its roots

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The August First Friday will feature an outdoor art installation called “antARTica.”
Photo: Leila Navidi

Finding agreement anywhere can be difficult. Finding it in Downtown Las Vegas, where development is fast changing the cityscape and new ideas and businesses are replacing the old, seems almost impossible at times.

So it’s good news that a huge alteration in the operation of First Friday, the mega monthly art walk/street fair near Charleston Boulevard and Casino Center Drive, is mostly being embraced.

“I have to hand it to [First Friday],” says Wes Myles. “They are learning quickly. I’m hoping what’s to come is an evolution away from the party and toward the art.”

As the owner of the Arts Factory, which houses numerous galleries and has long been considered one of the birthplaces of First Friday, Myles’ comment speaks volumes. Not only is he known to roar his opinion about everything from government bureaucrats to First Friday’s growth, but back in 2008, long before First Friday LLC bought out the monthly event, Myles told the Weekly he wanted to see the event “toned down” to focus more on art.

Since that time, the event has grown in the other direction. It now draws up to 30,000 people to several blocks full of vendors north of Charleston near Casino Center Drive. To the chagrin of some gallery owners, many visitors come less for the art and more for pure entertainment, which is stoked by food trucks, live music and people-watching.

First Friday announced last week, however, that it’s going to change things up a bit in August. Instead of streets full of vendors and food trucks, operators are going to create what they are calling “antARTica,” an immersive streetscape intended to skew how Las Vegans see their city during the heart of the summer.

Charles Ressler, the First Friday spokesman, won’t give complete details about the art installation, which could be more than a block long, but the plan is to use local artists and craftspeople to create a sort of winter wonderland. Visitors will be enshrouded with mists from sublimating dry ice; they’ll hear the sounds of ice cracking and whale song and see sculpture evoking a tundra.

“We’re looking to challenge perceptions of Las Vegas, and more than a perspective change but a true shift in someone’s mind-set,” Ressler says.

More than that, Ressler adds, it will attract more art enthusiasts and potential buyers, “where they might not have come out before.”

“We want to catalyze that change in thought about what Vegas means, about what art is, about what First Friday is. This an opportunity to create that shift. And we’re doing it by bringing together the community.”

With just a few weeks remaining before the August 2 event, organizers still want suggestions and are seeking volunteers in several categories, including painters, welders, carpenters, airbrush artists, performers and fabricators. They also need docents who will give guided tours of art galleries throughout the neighborhood.

One of the lead artists on the project is Michael Wardle, who has a studio Downtown near Bonanza Road. Wardle plans to create three-dimensional art on the street stretching almost a block.

“I consider it performance art, and I’ve done it before where you rehearse ahead of time, so you know how long it’s going to take,” he says. “I’ll have some help and hopefully be able to get the bulk of it down with rollers, if it’s paint that washes off, or just a lot of chalk.”

Most vendors and food trucks will move north of Charleston Boulevard, with some trucks remaining near the immersive art exhibit at California and Casino Center. Room for art vendors will also be available at that intersection, though some will be set up on the property of different businesses north of Charleston, including the Arts Factory.

Myles says there’s already been some push-back from vendors who rely on First Friday to make ends meet. While sympathetic, he believes that some vendors who show up once a month hurt the area’s brick and mortar businesses.

“We’re here every day, so blocking off a business to hold a party is counterproductive,” he says. [By making changes to First Friday,] “it’s going to make this more of a cultural event that will have more impact and help this district grow, because the businesses are going to absorb more customers.”

Myles adds that August’s First Friday has the potential to be a standout event that people will remember in years to come. “I’ve been preaching to them, and I think they get the idea that it’s better to have an event and make an impression than to just have a party.”

Marty Walsh, owner of Trifecta Gallery within the Arts Factory, sees change as natural, something to embrace rather than fight. “You have to be able to let go, especially with First Friday,” she says. “Downtown is about having an open mind.”

She hopes the event leads more visitors to her gallery—and not just potential buyers. “Whatever demographic they are from, it’s a chance for us to promote Downtown, and they’ll know that we’re here every day,” she says.

“When this all started ... we wanted an art walk, not a party,” Myles says. “So anything that can take it back that way has my thumbs up.”

To volunteer for the event, send an email to: volunteer@firstfridaylasvegas.com. Organizers ask volunteers to indicate in the subject line how they want to contribute.

More Joe Downtown: Sound the alarm—Fremont East could lose its local edge

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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