enculturating las vegas into the next millennium... art, dance, film, music, poetry, theater, history, nature and everything else that enriches the lives of those who live and visit southern nevada... Since 2003...

Sunday, October 09, 2011

First Friday Re-Loaded... A historical look back...

With First Friday under new ownership and the 9th Anniversary upon us the question is will First Friday really be any different? Will the masses come back? Will we have artists performing and exhibiting their creations? Of course! First Friday was never really cancelled; it was all probably a big PR stunt to get the public to say "whoa what's really going on Downtown..."

With First Friday reloaded or as others are calling it First Friday 2.0, the future of the monthly Downtown arts event is definitely in good hands. I like what I see so far and from what I have heard things are going to get moving really quickly with a new and improved arts event that will take your breadth away. So with all this said I want to look back at the many years that led the way in making First Friday one of Las Vegas' most successful arts events.

Historically one could say that the area along Charleston between Main and Las Vegas Boulevard has always been a focus for the arts, albeit indirectly. In 1957 Desert Art Supplies opened their first store on Main Street before moving to their current location on Charleston and Eastern. The art supply store has been a mainstay of Las Vegas art scene for over 50 years. During the same period the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce had their headquarters located on the corner of Charleston and 3rd Street. The chamber was a very significant tenant in the area because at the time, they ran the Las Vegas News Bureau. The News Bureau was the promotional arm for the city; with a vast archive of images, a full contingency of photographers taking photos of everything that happened in Las Vegas they were on the forefront of promoting the Entertainment Capital of the World.

Image from the City of Las Vegas
Centennial Website
The city's first major attempt to redevelop the area happened in 1959 and 1960 when the City Commission (city council) renamed 2nd Street to Casino Center Boulevard. This project began a major push for "modernizing" Downtown which included road improvements, new street lamps and the updating of many of Fremont Streets historic hotels with new façades. Casino Center Boulevard would be the city's attempt to redirect traffic from Las Vegas Boulevard to Fremont Street by creating a new access corridor that would take people directly to the casinos.

Feeling the competitive pressure from the ever expanding Strip casinos, the city even went as far as building a huge sign on the Las Vegas Strip one mile North of the famous Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. The new sign, much larger than the welcome sign would encourage tourists to visit Casino Center Downtown and declaring it was Only 10 Minutes Away.

In 1962 the Las Vegas Art League, the founding organization of the Las Vegas Art Museum, opened up their first art gallery at 921 Las Vegas Boulevard South just a few feet North of Charleston. The 1970's and 80's saw the opening of several antique shops along Charleston, and Main Street also saw an influx of furniture stores set up shop. In 1991 Wes Myles (Isbutt) would bring his photo studio to the very building he would later acquire and rename the Arts Factory.

By 1993 a paradigm shift would happen as Downtown saw its first bohemian coffee shop in a generation open. Founded by the late Julie Brewer and later taken over by Lenadams Dorris, the "Enigma Garden Cafe," curiously located at 918 & 1/2 4th Street, would be an amazing little corner of art, culture, music and poetry. This little cafe would leave an indelible mark on the psyche of Las Vegas' fledgling cultural arts scene. Though Cafe Enigma no longer exists it is hard to find anyone who has been part of "the scene" not remember this amazing and important space. I personally remember seeing for the first time Las Vegas' most famous poet Dayvid Figler perform his amazing "Anti-Bacterial Soap" poem at the Enigma.

After being unceremoniously kicked out of their previous gallery on Maryland Parkway the Contemporary Arts Collective (CAC - Center) would move on to Charleston Boulevard in 1996, making it one of the most important art anchors in the neighborhood. The CAC would open their new gallery with the locally acclaimed Mona-Mona-Mona juried art exhibition. According to Jim Stanford the CAC Vice-President at the time, hundreds would show up to the shows reception and the police would even be caught off guard by the masses.

By now the artistic seeds were sown in the neighborhood which caught the attention of the City of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs. Which was actually no surprise considering many of the staff were intimately involved in Las Vegas' fledgling art scene and many were graduates of the UNLV Art Department. The first real push to create a cohesive arts neighborhood or proto-arts district did not take place until 1997 when Cultural Affairs helped create the GAME Festival (Gateway Arts and Music Experience). GAME was the city's first major attempt at bringing an arts festival to Downtown. Besides creating a yearly festival, the city commissioned a series of murals that were painted in and around the area of East Charleston and Casino Center. Though the last GAME Festival occurred in 2001, its mark would have a profound effect in what would eventually blossom into First Friday and the creation of the 18b Arts District.

Founded in October of 2002 by three amazing art muses Cindy Funkhouser, Julie Brewer and Naomi Arin First Friday Las Vegas would not be a yearly event like its predecessor but rather a monthly event; a very brave move for a fledgling art event considering that the GAME festival could barely survive as a yearly fete. The very first First Friday had an estimated 300 people attend. Far more people showed up to First Friday than they did to the last GAME Festival, I know I was there.

Game Over
by Joe Cartino 2002
From the collection of
Brian Paco Alvarez
Located in just two locations, the Arts Factory and the Funkhouse Antique Shop, with no festival to speak of First Friday was definitely a simple affair. Cindy Funkhouser and crew went as far as to paint a trail of orange sneaker prints between the Arts Factory and the Funkhouse just so people would know where to go. Back then the walk between the two locations was not as easy as it is today. There were few sidewalks to speak of along Casino Center Boulevard and very few street lamps were available to illuminate the way. The days of "modernizing" Downtown had definitely befallen on hard times. My friend Mike and I went to that event and even made out like bandits with some new art and some fabulous vintage wares. I acquired Game Over by Laservida artist Joe Cartino and Mike bought the chandelier from the Maxim Hotel high rollers suite (now hanging in my living room).

Looking back at the very first First Friday one can only stand in awe of how far we have come since those pioneering artsy days of the 1990's and early 2000's. Who would have thought that a couple of dozen people would lead the way to thousands of people showing up to participate in an art scene that many would argue could not happen in a city like Las Vegas. I always argue with plenty of historical ammunition that anyone who thinks that Las Vegas has no arts and culture is not living in a world of reality. Lets face it there are plenty of troops on the ground to argue otherwise and most are able and ready to show the world that Las Vegas has finally arrived on the world stage of great American cities.

So with Tony Hsieh, Fred Mossler, Steve Hill and Andrew Donner as the new owners of First Friday and Joey Vanas running the show what does the future hold for the Downtown art event? Well if our past tells us anything, I think our future will hold new and exciting adventures that can only add to the narrative that we have already written. I am looking forward to it and I am so very glad to be along for the ride...

Brian Paco Alvarez

Brian Paco Alvarez enculturating Las Vegas into the millennium... ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ©

posted by Brian Paco Alvarez, Curator and Chronicler of Culture at


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