The Battle of First Friday

The news that our city’s monthly downtown Las Vegas arts celebration will shut down until October has sent the followers of our urban arts scene into a feeding frenzy—everyone appears to be eating each other.

The conflict is over what First Friday really is. When Whirlygig, the nonprofit that organizes the fenced-off street fair at the core of the celebration, announced that First Friday had been canceled, many Arts District merchants cried foul. First Friday, they argued, is more than the street fair—it’s an ad hoc neighborhood celebration in which galleries and businesses stay open late and Las Vegans come to check out the wares. So one organization can’t, strictly speaking, cancel it.

But Whirlygig has spent large sums since 2002 to help build First Friday into a can’t-miss Vegas experience. The event brings in as many as 10,000 people to the Arts District each month to check out local art and enjoy live music, but now its organizer is bleeding money. The cost of obtaining special-event permits from the city, paying for off-duty cops and paying to erect fencing along Casino Center Boulevard to help control crowds, has outpaced the fees the event charges to area vendors. Whirlygig president Cindy Funkhouser estimates the event is losing a few thousand dollars each month. The nonprofit will meet with city leaders soon to hash out a longer-term strategy for First Friday. The city used to provide a fair amount of support, but now it provides only a few thousand dollars a month in in-kind services. And it’s made no indication that the support will increase.

Whirlygig’s critics say that the July 17 cancellation announcement implied that if the fenced portion of First Friday is canceled, then everything is canceled. And that misconception, they argue, could cost them business. “[Whirlygig] represents inside the fence,” says Trifecta Gallery owner Marty Walsh. “For them to put out a press release that shoots 100 other businesses in the foot is, I think, really irresponsible.” Funkhouser says the criticism is unfair. “The vibe is kind of like we don’t have the authority to announce that we’re taking this hiatus,” she says. “Obviously, being a nonprofit incorporation, we have a fiduciary obligation to all of our vendors, all of our artists, to let them know.”

The seeds of the conflict are deep in Arts District lore. The only thing artists love more than art is infighting, and the First Friday announcement has quickly reopened old wounds. There’s little love lost, for instance, between Funkhouser and Arts Factory owner Wes Myles—both essentially take credit for transforming the 18 blocks of the district into the destination they’ve become. “She doesn’t have the right to cancel the event,” Myles says. “It’s not her event. She does not speak for the rest of the 18 blocks.”