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Returning to roots: First Friday nonprofit hopes to make event more gallery focused

As part of the restructuring of First Friday Las Vegas, the newly formed nonprofit First Friday Foundation will take a less active role in the monthly event during the traditionally quietest months of the year, when weather or holidays result in a greatly reduced turnout.

The 13-year-old event began as an art walk with the intention to bring more attention to the struggling art galleries and antique shops in the 18b Arts District. Artists, including some on the new board, will guide those off-months, and many in the Arts District welcome the return of more art-driven events.

“€œI think the transfer is a good thing,” said Justice Harney of Reclaimed Art Suppliez, a gallery, creative reuse center and event venue at 1114 S. Casino Center Blvd. “€œIt’€™s going back into the hands of the community like it used to be.”€

In 2011, an investment group that included Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh acquired First Friday from the nonprofit Whirleygig Inc. and rebranded it as First Friday Las Vegas.

The new organizers brought more structure. At the same time, it began to theme the monthly event. Some artists and business owners complained that it had become less about the art and more about a Burning Man-style party.

“How does First Friday help us?”€ said Wes Myles Isbutt, longtime owner of The Arts Factory, 107 E. Charleston Blvd. “€œThey block off the streets and destroy our business on (Preview) Thursday. They steal our business on Friday, and they stop us from doing what we do. They take money out of downtown. We don’€™t want 50,000 people coming down, getting drunk and trashing the buildings and the streets and leaving a mess we have to clean up. We want people to go from gallery to gallery and business to business, and we want businesses to do interesting and unique things to draw people in.”

Artist and gallery owner Alexander Huerta has organized several regular events at The Arts Factory in the seven years he has been there, including the long-running Painters on the Patio, which brought artists and music to the outdoor dining section adjacent to Bar+Bistro.

He has been instrumental in rebranding the galleries that branch from the upstairs southern hallway as South Wing and organizing South Wing Saturdays on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. He has also put together similar Fifth Friday events during the three or four months each year that have one.

“€œFor us, First Friday is five hours out of our lives each month,”€ Huerta said. “€œWe’€™re here every day, and we want people to come down to see and buy our work. We’€™ve got to make the Arts District work the rest of the time, and we want to make sure everyone knows that this is the place to come to see art. We’€™ve got to make it shine brighter with our kinds of bells and whistles —€” with murals, art and events.’€”

A group of artists, including Harney and Justin Lepper of Eden Gallery, a member of the new First Friday Foundation Board, have banded together to create art365.vegas, which they hope will be the one-stop place to find out about all of the galleries in the 18b and the rest of the valley.

“We’€™re hoping to make it a place where people can list their events, and you can find out what everyone is showing and when they’€™re open,”€ Lepper said. “€œIt will be funded by charging everyone who wants to be on it a few bucks a month to keep it up and running.”

Harney noted that things have been shifting to the 18b already, including some of the more popular open-mic nights. The regular Monday night Human Experience is set to move to Hop Nuts, 1120 S. Main St., on July 27, and Soul Sessions is scheduled on the first Sunday of every month at Raw Remedies, 203 E. Colorado Ave.

Harney is one of the organizers of the quiet-month First Friday events.

“It’s going to be an adjustment for the community that comes down looking for a drunken street fair, but we’€™ve got so much we plan to have going on down here, and it’€™s so positive,”€ Harney said. “The galleries are pulling together, and the arts community is looking forward to a real grass-roots event.”

For Reclaimed, First Friday events lure a lot of people but not necessarily a lot of customers.

“€œIt’€™s more of a big PR day, not necessarily a financial day,”€ Harney said. “€œIt gives us a chance to let people know what we’€™re doing, why we’re doing it and sharing with the community all of the potential of what we’€™re doing here.”

The city of Las Vegas is rearranging traffic flow for the event and making it more pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly. Californian Jonathan Kermani recently purchased Art Square, 1025 S. First St., and now owns most of the property adjacent to it and has plans to bring in more restaurants and other businesses.

“€œI was here at the start,”€ said artist Dray, who recently opened a gallery in The Arts Factory. “€œThere wasn’€™t even a sidewalk between The Arts Factory and the Funkhouse. When I moved down here and opened my first gallery (Dray’€™s Place, 1300 S. Casino Center Blvd.), the rest of the building was full of riff-raff and drug addicts. The local drug dealer lived on property. By the time the building sold a few years later, it was full of artists.”

Dray and the other artists were forced to leave when the property was purchased and the building was razed to make way for a high-rise condominium project that never materialized. The vacant lot is often used for storage for equipment used on First Friday.

Dray is part of a group of artists who are suspicious of the direction First Friday Las Vegas may take, including what the city has planned.

“One of the first things I saw when I came back were the signs —€” literal signs that they plan to move the Arts District,”€ Dray said. “There are at least three signs pointing north to the Arts District. They aren’t pointing to the 18b; they’re pointing to Fremont Street.”

Joey Vanas, executive director of the First Friday Foundation, said 18b will always be a focal point of First Friday as long as he has a say in it, but he also implied that for how much longer that will be is up in the air.

“€œThat’€™s been the idea all along, that we would carry the torch until it was at a point where it would really live and grow beyond us,”€ Vanas said. “I think we’€™re at that point.”

“€œOne of the first things they said when they bought it from Cindy (Funkhouser) is that they want to move it to Fremont East, and I believe them,” said Isbutt, who is selling The Arts Factory to Kermani. “€œI want them to as soon as possible. Please. Because guess what we’€™ll be left with? The folks who want to come see art.”

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series about changes regarding First Friday and the 18b Arts District. Part one ran July 16. Read it online at tinyurl.com/qflvvx5.

To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email ataylor@viewnews.com or call 702-380-4532.

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