Slick (born Emmett Gates Jr.) was busy, if not happy. "You got what you need, brother?" he asked. "Cool. I gotta run and get things together."
Things appeared well on the surface, but weren't. A week later, in a Las Vegas Weekly profile ("Everybody Loves Iceberg Slick," September 14), the Vegas-by-way-of-Pasadena curator vented about unnamed forces attacking his vision of First Friday as a cultural, cross-generational melting pot. The same young people who came to see the graffiti-inspired art he often displayed and to hear the hip-hop performers he gave a chance to spit—those same youngsters, his detractors charged, rarely bought any art and sometimes caused loads of trouble. He was being held responsible, he said, for people he couldn't control and, in general, didn't know. Why go to First Friday committee meetings, he thought, if he was going to be a punching bag and a not a vital voice?
"We don't feel welcome at many of these art meetings," Slick told the Weekly. "People have overlooked us because we don't dress like curators."
So last week, he made it official. Slick resigned from the First Friday committee. And, unlike in his previous published gripes, he named names. Will that mean fewer young people, less riff-raff and more art buying? A higher or lower profile for the "hustler of culture"? Time will tell.
The Resignation Letter
To his credit, or perhaps not, Slick resigned publicly, forwarding his 1,000-plus-word swan song to various media outlets. It reads:
What: Iceberg Slick resigns from the Vegas art scene.
When: First Friday
Why: Read on ...
Okay, so, four and a half years ago the Vegas art scene is non-existent. First Friday is just breaking ground and a new crew called 5ive Finger Miscount, unaccepted by the local art circles, begins doing underground shows complete with graffiti, deejays and an abundance of young people who'd never dreamt of attending an art show. Out of fear and lack of understanding of this new movement, 5FM is not an active participant of the First Friday thing and is forced to promote events in out-of-the-way venues with wall space.
The press takes notice. Suddenly the crew is invited to the district to help bring a young and hipper crowd downtown. Our first venture is to muralize the Funk House with traditional graffiti. Not long after 5FM moves into the Arts Factory with fellow member and well respected art god K.D. Matheson, whose involvement helps legitimize our movement in the more conservative circles, a younger and hipper crowd begins to attend First Friday.
A rift is [then] created between the north and south sides of the arts district. The Arts Factory is quickly becoming the hot place to be on First Friday. Because of this, 5FM breaks up. Vegas mover and shaker Jerry Misko, who was the curator of the Arts Factory at the time, hands the baton to me so he can get more involved with his new commitment to Dust gallery on Main Street. I accept and begin to introduce our new movement, along with fresh and young faces; Danny Roberts, Casey Weldon, Joseph Watson, S. Victor Whitmill, Korey Erra and many others have their first showings with the Arts Factory.
First Friday is now exciting. There is a buzz and everyone is talking about it and attending. The Arts Factory, being the only gallery in the district to import celebrity artists, keeps the public on its toes as to what's next. Some of the more conservative [people in the arts district], i.e. Marty Walsh, do not get it and ask me to tone it down. I decline. I begin to focus on graffiti by muralizing the building live for the crowd who may have never seen this done. After all, most graffiti just shows up overnight. My production in April brings a tremendous crowd, as well as MTV, A&E and every Vegas news station. Every artist in the [Arts] Factory boasts record sales that night. Local vandals begin to approach me as to how they might participate in something legal. Many are given a chance and their lives are changed as they see a new outlet for their future.
Other galleries begin to copy my format and lend credence to this new movement by trying to steal my artists (Marty Walsh is one of them). This is cool because she's in the [Arts] Factory.
Whirlygig [owned by Cindy Funkhouser], who seems to care less about culture and more about sponsorship and antique sales, decides "Hey there is a lot going on over at the Factory so lets close the streets down in front of it and completely screw up what [they're] doing by putting shit that has nothing to do with their desired demographic!" They are successful. The people stop coming. Every month: same vendors, same bands, same old shit! The faithful [Arts] Factory goers are replaced with drunken, party-going girl watchers. Sales are down. Attendance is in vain. I was sold on the idea of an Arts District, not a continuation of New Year's Eve on the Vegas Strip.
The Arts Factory has always been opposed to the street fair vibe and developed the reputation as the only place in the district to focus on quality art inside and out. It used to be that twice a year the city and Whirlygig would shut the street down in front of the Factory, which made it special and acceptable. The rest of the year we were able to stand apart from the circus that Whirlygig designed for their side. Now, however, they do it every month. Last First Friday they had the nerve to put a banjo-playing cover band outside, which killed my normal crowd. Art sales have been at an all time low for the last three months since they've began this.
Also they allowed a group called T.A.G. (Targeting Area Graffiti) a group who threatens local graffiti artists by offering money to snitches to have a presence just outside the factory. Now I do not condone tagging, but I do believe that threatening them will only aggravate the situation. I suggest offering other artistic outlets for them like legal murals or canvas. The Factory has been the only place that treats them human and gives them hope, which is why tagging has been a minimal problem there. I did not appreciate Whirlygig allowing them a presence near us. Plus, what the hell do they have to do with art?
The producers of First Friday are destroying the Vegas art scene as quickly as it was built with their typical Vegas, let's-milk-it-for-what-it's-worth-pillage-it attitude. Everyone has different aims. Some just want to sell antiques; others just want the property values to rise. I want Vegas to be taken seriously as a cultural center. I want young people to know that when they get out of art school they don't have to move to L.A. or New York to pursue a career. Whether you know it or not Las Vegas currently has the hottest art scene on the West Coast and is the talk of every other art scene in surrounding cities. How embarrassed I am when I import artists and there is an outdated band playing Chumba Wumba covers just outside the [Arts] Factory and loud.
I feel like I have built a house and everyone is just rummaging through it taking what they like and demonizing the rest—taking my pictures down to replace them with their own, moving my furniture and sleeping in my bed. It is for this reason that I am organizing a new campaign called F!F.F. (F#&*! First Friday). This is my boycott. The 5ive Finger Miscount studio and M Modern Las Vegas will remain closed on First Friday. There will be NO festivities in the parking lot of the [Arts] Factory. And the walls of the common areas just might remain blank on that night as well (haven't decided yet). Plus at this moment I abandon my seat on the First Friday committee. Myself and other members of the original art community will not be attending the event either. I will still be curating the Factory ... just not on that night. I quit and am taking all of my resources. I will not be crew to a sinking ship.
All I am asking is for Whirlygig and the city to give us control of what happens on our side of First Friday so that we may return to quality and art. If they want the craft fair vibe they may do it on the south side like always. I'm all for diversity and all that shit but hey what's cool is cool and what ain't ... ain't. Thank you to the press and everyone else who continue to push for culture in the city I love. I hope the best for the art scene but will not return until the circus vacates the Arts Factory area.
First Friday Background
A little First Friday history is in order, at least to set the context of the highbrow vs. lowbrow rift currently roiling the scene. This is courtesy of a June 1 Weekly cover story, "Artistic Differences": "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 [the Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art] 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."
As First Friday matured, competing visions emerged of what the event should be: SoHo-style enclave of highbrow art vs. a street bazaar atmosphere where urban, or lowbrow, art thrived. Which brings us to where we are today.
Here's what people are saying about Slick's allegations and his departure from the First Friday scene:
Marty Walsh owns Trifecta Gallery across from Studio 5ive. The gallery's been open for two years and she's been in the Downtown arts scene for five. Walsh didn't want to defend herself but felt she had to: "I have watched, supported and celebrated Iceberg's credo to attract, educate and provide a youth voice as part of the whole in the Arts District. He knows this, as we have had several conversations about it. I've been helpful and welcoming to his artists, never stealing' them or his format. I'm left wondering when First Friday became all about Iceberg and his singular ideals. I thought we were all playing in the same sandbox, celebrating the diversity."
Cindy Funkhouser, who owns the Funk House antique and furniture store, said she wasn't in the mood to go tit-for-tat on Slick's allegations: "The only thing I can say that is a fact is that the complaints are invalid. The fact is that the programming on that street has been done by the city for some time. It's been offered many times to the Arts Factory to be involved in the programming and they haven't participated. That's all I really have to say."
She told the Weekly earlier that First Friday seeks to be inclusive: "We do want kids here. 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."
Jack Solomon, owner with his wife, Carolyn, of S2 Art, hadn't seen Slick's letter but said the tension between highbrow and lowbrow and the problems caused by some youngsters are real: "Highbrow indicates a bias. The people who buy art aren't necessarily highbrow but want quality art. I employ 50 people; we have to make sales. ... The Arts District is becoming better and better and it's going to turn into a gem. It's more than an arts district; it's a place for the creative class to be. We have so many creative people in this town and they don't want to live in gated communities or a high-rise on the Strip. When the artists and galleries come in, the people come in. I was in early on SoHo in New York and I saw what happened there. When we started out with First Fridays, Cindy was on our board and we did fine. What's happened is that Cindy's vision has changed; it's different from ours. We want an art walk, not a block party. I think that's counterproductive. Some of the galleries have decided not to participate in First Fridays. Next door, Wes [Isbutt, owner of the Arts Factory] gets a huge repair bill for the trash that these young people leave. Graffiti often comes later that evening. There has to be a change. I lose money every First Friday, lots of money. A lot of old-timers think this area is unsafe. When you get right down to it, it's very easy to call me a big fat capitalist who's interested in money. That's just a million pounds of bullshit. If we want to develop artists, they have to be able to make a living. Graffiti is therapy art. We need to develop more galleries, and galleries have to make a living. I would never be one to criticize the type of art shown in a gallery, but I have to clean up graffiti on my buildings. This is supposed to be an art walk, not a block party for young thugs."
As to Slick's claim of bullying by municipal graffiti abatement personnel, Dan Kulin, county public information officer, declined comment: "I'm going to defer to the city because the event happens in the city."
Yes, the event occurs in the city's jurisdiction, but the county's anti-tagging efforts have generated the most controversy, including a program offering money for those who turn in vandals. (Mayor Oscar Goodman's proposal to chop off taggers' thumbs was lampooned.) Nearly four years ago, Clark County graffiti-abatement specialist Darryl Kresser battled with Andre "Dray" Wilmore, an original member of the 5ive Finger Miscount arts collective, over "Wet Paint," a graffiti-inspired exhibition at Winchester Community Center.
"This kid did not learn his art in a classroom but rather on the street," Kresser wrote in an e-mail to the county Parks and Recreation department.
Last year, the city of Las Vegas spent $100,000 alone on paint to cover up graffiti. City spokesperson Diana Paul said First Friday will go on with or without Slick's participation: "First Friday has proven to be a huge success. It is unfortunate when those in the Arts District community decide not to participate in First Friday, but First Friday will continue to be a successful event that brings large crowds to the Arts District. The city of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs partners with Whirlygig Inc. to program the First Friday street fair on Boulder Avenue, and is always open to suggestions and programming ideas from the community and especially those that live and work in the Arts District. The street fair is an important part of First Friday, and helps to add diverse elements to the event."
As the graffiti/tagging controversy rages and the battle for the soul of First Friday continue, Dray laments the politicization of art: "I do see First Fridays changing. There is a lot more youth out there, which is good. I'm pretty sure if Slick decides not to participate in First Fridays, I think it will definitely change. I've actually talked to him about this. His argument is credible. They should let him do what he's doing. I've been here for seven years. As far as Vegas people buying art, it's not like other cities. The whole culture here is different. We're just not getting comfortable with it. I think the main thing is that there should be more people coming out, period. The question is what will get the older, more conservative people to come out. There should be a mixture of both. The city is doing a lot of things right, but also doing a lot of things to hinder it. To put the [anti-tagging] people in front of the Arts Factor, where you have a lot of those kids coming down there wanting an outlet, it's intimidating. As far the future of the Arts District, where is it's going is up to the people who want to shape it. I never thought art could be so political."