Cindy Funkhouser

First Friday’s founder discusses the ups and downs of establishing a home for the local arts scene

As the force behind First Friday, downtown’s monthly, arts-driven street fair, Cindy Funkhouser has created an arts haven in Las Vegas where many thought it could not be done. Funkhouser, who also owns the Funk House antique store downtown, was inspired by a similar event in Portland, Ore. The Oct. 1 First Friday will mark the eighth anniversary of the festival, which has survived its share of problems, from the crumbling economy to Funkhouser’s own battle with cancer in 2007. She has had to scale things back, but people have still showed up. With Funkhouser back to health, she’s trying to ensure that First Friday lives on, even if she’s not at the helm.

How has First Friday changed over the years?

We probably had about 300 people at our first event, and now we have thousands. It’s gone through a lot of changes because we used to get a lot of city support, so we did it on a much larger scale, another block in each direction. And then we went through the changes of adding fencing and the city was supplying fewer services, so we started collecting donations at the gate and the attendance went down. In June of 2009, we decided we’re not doing anything except getting licenses for artists on the sidewalk, nothing else, and people still came in droves. We’ve had to learn to really cut back expenses. I find myself going through old invoices and I say, “I can’t believe we spent all this money on stuff, it’s insane.”

Does Las Vegas support art?

I don’t think it’s devoid. I think there are people and organizations that support the arts. This is a new city. We don’t have the support they have in L.A., New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Dallas, but those are all really old cities. Vegas is a city based on casinos being the main industry for so many years and hopefully we’ve learned something from that being the case.

Why was this important to you?

I’ve been doing art at the Funk House for almost 10 years. I show different artists every month or every two months. I’ve never charged commission. So we were doing that a year and a half before I ever went to Portland and ever saw what they were doing up there. I wasn’t that involved with the contemporary arts community. I’ve collected vintage art for years, and been in antiques for years and of course been in museums and aware of contemporary art, but not so much in the sense of local artists. Doing art at the Funk House made me realize how much artists need a place to show work.

What has disappointed you about the arts scene in Las Vegas?

There’s not enough support, for sure. I think the community has really realized that it’s an important event to the city and if the community doesn’t support it, it’s just not going to happen. We’re getting that support, but it’s still not enough. We need more corporate support. I think if some of the major casinos here, being the major industry—$5,000 or $10,000 or $50,000 to them, you know they spend that in the blink of an eye remodeling a suite—and I think they should step up and do something to help support the event. Quite frankly, it’s disappointing that some of the people come to the event and set up illegally. It’s very disappointing to me that they are willing to draw off of something that is very hard to keep afloat. We’re a small nonprofit, and it’s pretty much month-to-month if we’re going to have the funding. It’s not small companies; Red Bull comes down here, Monster, and park right outside our gate.

Did having cancer change your outlook on life?

No. It’s kind of funny because the other day a friend was in and he had cancer and he was saying, “Life is too short—I’m going to travel.” I said, “You know, I can’t say I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted, but I’ve done a lot of things I wanted to do. I’ve traveled, and I always wanted to own my own antique store and I’ve achieved those things and experienced a lot of things and I’m not one of those I almost died now I’m going to do this people. There was no epiphany.

What do you say to detractors of the Las Vegas arts scene?

Probably the same thing I would say to people that don’t vote. If you’re not involved, don’t bitch. You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. If you think there’s something wrong with it, step up and help it, don’t just complain about it.

Do you see a day when you’re not involved with First Friday?

Yes, I do. I have some goals in mind, and that’s why we’re actually trying to build our board. We make it very clear when someone new wants to be on the board that you have to be an active member. This is not a fluff board, no one is donating a bunch of money to be on the board. This is a working board; we don’t need any non-working members. We need working members. I kind of see the 10th anniversary—although given the economy that might be too soon—but what I would like to see is the event to be at the point to hire people that can do the logistical things. Someone to write the grants. I’m not even a grant-writer, and I write all the grants. In the end I’d still be involved, maybe on the board and maybe more on the fundraising end of it. And then maybe eventually I would be out of it. I don’t know.

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