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Art of commerce?

On the fifth anniversary of First Friday, some are wondering whether it’s a flea market or an art event. How are economic needs affecting the art community?

Aaron Thompson

People passing by an art exhibit inside of the Arts

Factory Common area during the September 7

First Friday events.

There’s a strange energy in the air at First Friday. It’s the odd, out-of-place tenseness of thousands of suburbanites marching around a few Downtown blocks while police officers patrol the fenced-in epicenter of bands, Starbucks coffee stands, rib cookouts and small art shacks. Once, the brigades of officers and suburbanites were armies of bohemians and activists handing out literature for some obscure cause of the week. The masses of today—looking for a party, holding onto their plastic MGD bottles and $25 cheap art prints—were once smaller groups of local artists and art followers, heading from the cramped corners of the Arts Factory to the open-air party and galleries on Colorado Avenue.

But now, five years after the founding of what is now Las Vegas’ premier Downtown street party, the once-little shindig put together by a group of business and gallery owners is at an impasse. With Downtown redevelopment and a possible multibillion-dollar arena project looming on the horizon, the future of First Friday seems to be based on one thing: economic survivability. But is money enough to keep the fledgling art scene alive? Or will an emphasis on merchandising—everything from T-shirts to beer—actually detract from the quality of the art scene?

The answers depend on whom you talk to.

•••••

The nonprofit Whirlygig Inc. is one of the main reasons for the existence of First Friday. Started by antique-store owner Cindy Funkhouser, attorney and art gallery owner Naomi Arin and the late entrepreneur Julie Brewer, Whirlygig has, since 2002, been the main hub for planning all things First Friday-related.

What started as a trio of women and a handful of volunteers stringing together a small art event bloomed into a small army of staff and volunteers. Nancy Higgins, the executive director of Whirlygig, says the group’s major concern now is logistics: how to feed, hydrate and entertain the 8,000 to 10,000 people who come to the festival every month.

“The goal of Whirlygig is to get people down to the arts district and to make them comfortable,” Higgins says. “Part of the festival is designed to give everyone in the area something to do.”

This strategy has been a success in some cases. Street artists, including local stencil artist and La Gloria fashion-apparel seller Enrique Nevarez, credit the street-party atmosphere around First Friday for helping their business.

“First Friday has been a great push for me,” Nevarez says. “The environment out here has been perfect for me. It’s urban and it’s Downtown. It’s perfect for the looks we want to cater to.”

Nevarez started La Gloria clothing after gaining support from local artist and then-Downtown resident Dray. Dray, who had a gallery on the corner of Colorado Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard, let Nevarez use his gallery to sell shirts, bags and pieces imprinted with pictures and logos—many containing biting social commentaries—made primarily with spray paint. These days, Nevarez makes $150-$500 every First Friday.

“It’s pretty good for four hours of work,” Nevarez says. “But we’re trying to do other things.” Those other things include hosting an art show at the Arts Factory this March.

Examples such as Nevarez and booth-exhibitor-turned-gallery-mainstay Keri Schroeder show how the on-the-street scene has evolved since Higgins became Whirlygig executive director last year. She’s attempted to put a larger emphasis on opening up tents and booths on Casino Center so artists like Nevarez can sell their works and take advantage of the crowds partying on the street. The booths, which are free to artists, now stretch throughout Colorado Avenue and Casino Center.

But she also hears plenty of concerns about whether the booths truly add to the art-walk atmosphere, particularly since during some months, those that sell water, beer and food outnumber the vendors selling art. Plus, a city of Las Vegas rule that requires artists and street vendors to display a business license outside of their booth or tent lends a distinct sense of bureaucratic interference to the once independent and anti-authoritarian feeling of the Downtown art fest.

Yet Higgins maintains that the alcohol and food sales are there only to underwrite the $200,000 yearly expenses Whirlygig incurs, and that those tax forms, which are regulated by the city and not Whirlygig, are just the price First Friday has to pay for its dramatic growth.

“We have to raise a lot of funds [to be able to put on the event],” Higgins says. “As events grow, some of the rules have to change. We try to keep it all grass-roots, but we have to follow the rules.”

•••••

Rambunctious drunks, underage kids and general party-goers are not necessarily the kind of people that gallery owners such as Wes Myles, owner of the Arts Factory, want floating around the Downtown art scene.

“The consumers [of First Friday] are getting younger and younger and younger,” Myles says. “They’re not buying paintings.”

That demographic shift doesn’t surprise Myles, considering the development and growth of the Whirlygig-produced street event. But what is surprising is how the festival has begun to cut into the bottom line of artists who show during the festival.

Myles says that as the street fest has grown, sales from artists in the Factory seem to have gone down. Even with thousands going through the warren of galleries, Myles says that his tenants claim that they hardly ever sell any larger or professional pieces during First Friday. “Our crowd shifted, and it became more youth- and party-oriented, and the art sales have declined,” Myles says. “I ask artists every month how their sales were, and while they can sell $25 prints, they can’t sell any of their larger pieces.”

But while Myles’ tenants, including popular local and regional artists like painters Jennifer Main and Michael Wardle, seem to have a hard time selling their big-ticket pieces (with prices that range from the low hundreds to thousands of dollars) during the event, other galleries in the area bank on the crowds of First Friday to bring visitors and revenue. Mark T. Zeilman, whose gallery, MTZC, is located off of Commerce Street and Oakey Boulevard—nearly a quarter-mile away from the main art walk—claims much of his gallery’s success and survival is due to sales made during First Friday, but he has no idea why.

“I don’t actually know why I make sales on First Friday,” Zeilman says. “I think people buy stuff in my gallery because I’ve been around for a while and they know the place and the art.”

Zeilman’s gallery, which is going into its second year in the Commerce Street location and its fourth year inside the arts district, is known for being one of the only galleries that caters exclusively to underground art.

“That’s the stuff that’s not going to get shown as much,” Zeilman says.

Regardless, MTZC seems to be an exception to the economic instability in the area. MTZC is one of only a few surviving art galleries left inside of Commerce Street Studios. Meanwhile, Holsum Lofts, a former bread factory and now a converted gallery space on Charleston, has lost a number of its tenants, most notably the Contemporary Arts Collective.

The closures come on the heels of a proposed multibillion-dollar Downtown sports-arena project being spearheaded by Michigan-based real-estate investment company REI-Neon. The project—slated to occupy the land running from Charleston to Oakey Boulevard, between Main Street and Industrial Road—will take out a number of the businesses and galleries in the area, including Commerce Street Studios, the home of MTZC. But Zeilman says that the project, which isn’t even projected to break ground until the third or fourth quarter of 2008, has been stunted.

“We kind of stopped hearing about it after Harrah’s announced their plans for a stadium near the Strip,” Zeilman says. The Strip’s 20,000-seat stadium proposed by Harrah’s Entertainment and AEG was announced in mid-August and is set to break ground in summer of 2008. If REI’s project moves forward, demolition of the 85-acre area will begin around the same time as construction for the new arena.

Even Myles, who owns property in the affected area and stands to earn millions off of the deal, sees REI’s deal falling through due to the tumble in the credit market.

According to the Las Vegas Sun, Myles, who had entered into a deal with REI more than two years ago, saw his deal go out of escrow in mid-August. REI maintained that it had until the end of September to finalize the deal, but Myles says that no deal has yet been made. That casts a shadow over the possibility that the company will buy out the remaining properties in the area.

But if the project moves ahead, Zeilman, along with more than a dozen other gallery owners in the area, will be without their spaces and facing the unfortunate prospect of being priced out of the area by climbing property costs.

“I don’t know where I’ll move to,” Zeilman says. “I don’t think there will be a low-rent place to go to. And it’ll be tougher for people like me to get a place [to show art].”

•••••

James Shapiro buys some pieces from

local artist Nay at a booth at First Friday's

street walk.

Despite “Project Pulse” (the name of the arena proposal), the number of galleries in the arts district has almost tripled in the last year. But rather than being concentrated inside the borders of the street festival and in the Arts Factory (areas that would be affected directly by construction), more are opening north of Charleston on Main Street. These galleries, according to Myles, represent a shift in the overall aesthetic of the art scene. To some, it seems that the monthly festival and its two diverse crowds are becoming more divided in their ideas of what the art scene should be. On the north end, Myles has received a $1.47 million grant from the state to turn Boulder Avenue, just behind the Arts Factory, into a sculpture garden and art walk. On the south end of the festival area, Higgins and Whirlygig have expanded the festivities almost all the way to Charleston. With expanded vendors in the area, Whirlygig has been breaking even or surpassing its projected $200,000-a-year budget.

But even while crowds have gone from around 200 people in 2002 to nearly 10,000 today, Myles says that the buying power of those crowds is weak and nowhere near the buying power of crowds between mid-2004 and the end of 2005.

“There was a two-year span where the crowds were at the 3,000-5,000 range and everyone was selling art. It was the first time for something like that in Vegas,” Myles says “We had a sort of mall environment happening where people would walk off the street and buy art.”

But Dust Gallery and First Friday co-founder Naomi Arin disagrees with Myles’ assessment of a peak time.

“There’s been no real peak for sales,” Arin says. “First Friday is still growing, and as audiences grow, there’s going to be more artists and more sales.”

While Arin says that Dust has many interested buyers visit on First Friday to look at the works on display, only to come back later and buy, she also believes that it is foolish of galleries to expect that they will make a majority of their sales during the festival. She says there are 28 or 29 other days in the month that galleries need to focus on.

“My business plan has nothing really to do with First Friday,” Arin says. “Sure, I love it more than anything, and when a sale comes in on that day, it’s the icing on the cake. But I’m not planning on it.”

Still, even if fewer collectors are coming to the festival and do most of their sales outside of First Friday, Higgins says the event has become more about bringing more people to the district, and from there, new sales may arise.

“While we have a festival, we want people to get to the other areas around the district and see the art and buy it,” Higgins says. “But it’s also a community gathering.”

To local artist, photographer and frequent First Friday contributor Diane Bush, the festival should not be centered squarely on art sales.

“To me selling art is not what First Friday is about,” Bush says. “First Friday is all about the community. It’s about the community coming together to a social event that’s safe and fun. I think what is strongest about First Friday is the sense of community in a city that people say has no community.”

•••••

In the end, though, it seems that no matter how hard First Friday (the festival) and First Friday (the gallery purchasing opportunity) try to separate themselves from each other, the two are ultimately tied together. If the festival fails and people stop coming, sales from many of the galleries will plummet. If galleries stop opening on First Friday, the market for potential sales will fall and the atmosphere of an art-centric festival will dissolve into a similar facade that parking-lot arts-and-crafts shows around the country share. But these dire scenarios will most likely not occur anytime soon, and the near future of First Friday, despite the problems and uncertainty now, seems optimistic to those running and participating in the event.

Even with the arena project in the foreground and the disagreements between many members of the art community on how they do business, there is one general consensus among all of them: First Friday will continue to grow alongside the art community.

But while there will always be artists in Las Vegas, is First Friday enough to keep the art community thriving in the valley?

Diane Bush seems to sum it up the best.

“There may be headaches that arise [with the growth of the event]. It’s good for the artists, the students, the county and the city. But we’re all building upon educating people about what good art is and what it should be. But in 10 years, First Friday will build to a fabulous mass of people, and we’ll all be laughing.”

Aaron Thompson is the Weekly's calendar editor.

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