Photo by Anthony Mair
Arty party? Or simply … par-TAY?
Ask arty folks and party folks and you might get different answers about which label better suits First Friday as it hits the decade mark, the monthly street fest having debuted in October 2002 as a way to spark a downtown renaissance.
A pinwheel of street performers, artists and culture aficionados (and food trucks, police and parking conundrums) held the first Friday of every month, the event has burgeoned from a relatively intimate affair. Initially a collaboration between a few businesses and art galleries, it attracted about 300 people in its inaugural outing to browse and buy artwork.
Today, First Friday—extending more than 20 blocks—attracts thousands each month, requiring logistics including building stages, shutting down streets and importing portable toilets. Artists display their work for free, and the visiting throngs pay no cover charge. Former Mayor Oscar Goodman, long an advocate for a vibrant downtown arts scene, once called the event the best thing to ever happen to Las Vegas. Whirlygig Inc., a nonprofit arts organization that received federal and state grants, funded First Friday, which also drew financial support from the City of Las Vegas. Predictably, though, the Great Recession took its toll on the city’s contribution in 2009, when it was gutted by about 80 percent.
By 2011, Whirlygig was ready to sell and an investment partnership including Zappos CEO Tony Heish—calling itself First Friday Las Vegas, LLC—was ready to buy. Business owners were taken by surprise, apparently not consulted by the investors, but were abuzz about the possibilities.
As the anniversary arrives, the impact of the regime change is up for debate, as Vegas Seven found by interviewing feisty Arts Factory owner Wes Myles and current organizer Joey Vanas. We also take a look back with co-founder and guiding spirit Cindy Funkhouser.
Join us as we mark 10 years with three perspectives on First Friday. – S.B.
In 2002, Cindy Funkhouser traveled to Portland, Ore., to visit her son and to check out the monthly gallery walk in that city’s Pearl District. Portland’s First Thursday, which celebrates its 26th anniversary on Oct. 4, so intrigued Funkhouser that upon returning home she persuaded two friends—Naomi Arin, an attorney and gallerist, and the late Julie Brewer, former owner of pioneering downtown café Enigma—to bring a similar event to Las Vegas. They formed a nonprofit called Whirlygig and went to work.
That first year, there were only two stops on the First Friday map: Funkhouser’s antique store/art space the Funk House, and Wes Myles’ Arts Factory gallery complex. Everything else—the bands, the food trucks, the Arts District itself—appeared over time. But it all began with one woman’s trip to Portland. Late one recent afternoon, after the Funk House had closed for the day, Funkhouser recalled that trip and all that came after.
What did your friends think of your gallery crawl idea?
They tried to talk me out of it for a few months. Julie and I had been doing art shows in the back of the Funk House, which we’ve been doing longer than First Friday. Finally, Julie said, “You’re obviously gonna do this regardless.” And, of course, I was. I had chutzpah and audacity that I don’t have anymore. We were just thrilled at the first one in 2002.
How did it go?
Even some of the city people didn’t believe it would work: “You should wait.” But we had done six months of planning at that point, so we pressed ahead.
What was Wes Myles’ take?
We didn’t even communicate with Wes at that time. The only thing we asked him was if we could put down some … I guess what you’d consider guerilla art. Julie, my son Jason and I borrowed a pair of [Double Down owner and Julie’s husband] P Moss’ old Converse high-tops, Jason put them on, we somehow got some florescent orange paint on their soles and Wes allowed us to put footprints all the way from the Arts Factory to the Funk House. I held the pan; Jason said, “Mom, you’re killing me”; and Julie just laughed the whole time.
For the most part, though, it was [local artist] Jerry Misko who communicated with Wes. ... Jerry said, “I’ll talk to everybody and get them to be open.” That was the start of it.
There were about 300 people at that first event. It was unbelievable. Somewhere I have a picture of Julie sitting by the front door here, with a mask on, blowing bubbles. Those are pleasant memories for me.
What went into producing First Friday? Was it a chore?
It was great. I loved doing it. I realized from doing the shows at the Funk House what needs [to] exist for artists here in Vegas. And I was very happy giving the artists a place to show their work. I’m still showing emerging artists here, and I don’t take a percentage. It’s meant to be a learning experience for them.
Things went sideways in 2007: Julie died, and you were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Did that take the joy out of First Friday?
It wasn’t disenchantment, but it was challenging. I arranged my chemo, my surgery, all my stuff around First Friday. It wasn’t until late ’08 or ’09, once I had heart surgery, that I realized it was really wearing on me.
In summer 2011, when funding forced you to call a hiatus, people said nasty things.
Oh yeah, on Facebook. It was basically akin to a public lynching, but I wasn’t present for it. My only purpose in announcing the hiatus publicly was public safety: There weren’t gonna be any barricades, but people were still gonna come. We never said anybody wouldn’t be open, though the Funk House wouldn’t be. It was two months I could rest.
Part of the legacy of First Friday is infighting. How much did that get to you?
You have infighting no matter what. It’s like what people used to say to Julie when she was running Enigma: “What you ought to do is this.” People are never gonna agree on anything, no matter what the idea is. Even Portland’s First Thursday has seen people split off from the main event: they now have a Last Thursday and a First Friday, as well.
Do you want to be remembered for your role in First Friday?
It’s not important to me at all.
Do you have any hopes for the event you created?
I hope it continues on. It’s good for the city. It’s a tough city to hang in, because of the economy. It’s good that First Friday has weathered the storm. – G.C.
Shocker: Wes Myles is excited.
Asking him about First Friday—or anything related to Las Vegas’ impact on his beloved Arts District—triggers his signature passion, not to mention blistering honesty. Screw politeness that obscures what he considers The Truth.
Wes Myles is, in short, being Wes Myles. Who would have it otherwise? Certainly, those many folks in local government with whom the Arts Factory owner has clashed on city codes, permits and restrictions, hampering efforts to encourage the city to appreciate the Arts District. Still here after announcing his intention to split from Las Vegas—he’s perusing opportunities, he says—Myles isn’t swayed by sentimentality over its anniversary when questioned about First Friday:
Has First Friday been positive for the Arts District?
Positive in that it brings attention to the Arts District and caused a lot of people to consider bringing their energies down here, but it’s nowhere near where it needs to go. It isn’t what we hoped for, but it’s better than what we had.
Why does it disappoint?
Cindy [Funkhouser, First Friday co-founder] created a model that didn’t make her neighbors happy, didn’t make her money and made her physically sick. She poured her heart and soul into that, and it took her down. That takes us to the group that bought it, First Friday Las Vegas LLC, with the Tony Hsieh-Zappos attachment. They take that exact same model and just put it on steroids. She was losing $10,000, so they lose $70,000.
Did you have high hopes when they took over?
Yes, but they admittedly said they didn’t have experience with this. Not that they’re not nice people and well-meaning, but they’re so misguided. I look at it and laugh. The very first thing they said when they took over was they wanted to link it to Fremont East. Well, I’m over here. So are all the people who got this going. It’s typical Las Vegas. If someone gets something going, they break it apart or copy it.
The influx of people hasn’t bolstered the Arts Factory?
My income for First Friday has dropped by 30 percent since First Friday LLC took over. A lot of people drank the Zappos Kool-Aid that they are going to be part of that. In the beginning they talked about art, art, art. But their art consultant is no longer with them. That lasted a nanosecond. They’re looking for a return for the community? Whose community? The arts community? Are you trying to have a party or trying to have art? It’s a different conversation. We’ve had to adapt, the tenants, trying to sell things to that crowd—trinkets, buttons, silly items.
What’s been the effect of the party atmosphere?
An example: We got a visit from the Metropolitan Police Department saying they got a report we were serving [alcohol to] underage people. That’s not true. They said they were going to send someone in undercover. Well, God bless you. We said, “Someone came here, we assume for First Friday, and they brought their 6-year-old daughter, and they got separated from her.” When they found her she had alcohol on her breath, so they assume we must have served her. With that influx of people, you get more of the crazies. I didn’t want to be in the liquor business, I wanted to be in the art business.
Don’t additional police help make downtown safer?
If I came down here and saw all those police, I’d think, “Why are the cops here?” When I hire private security, I can get them to pick up trash and talk to people, give them information. The officers, all I get is the show of force.
How have logistics and parking problems affected you?
People are opportunists, they’re vultures. The city, the garbage companies, all poach on First Friday. The tow trucks don’t come down to tow cars any other day of the month.
Do you dread First Friday?
We hunker down, like, “Here we go again boys and girls.” We put more energy into what we call the Cultural Weekend—Preview Thursday, and on the Saturday afterward, the Arts Factory holds events. We’ve had success bringing down the art crowd the night before and after.
If First Friday hasn’t been the boon you wanted, how about The Smith Center?
The Smith Center has been—what’s the appropriate word?—the coming of the Messiah. We didn’t see it coming. We thought we were going to get a few trickle-overs when something happened. No, no, no. Depending on the show, it fills out the restaurant and the bar. With Wicked right now, we know we’re going to be 100 percent full. And these are people who are dressed nice, they are affluent, they love walking the galleries, like, “Oh my God, look at these. Why haven’t we been down here before?”
Are you optimistic for the future of First Friday?
I’m extremely optimistic because at some point, First Friday Las Vegas will have lost enough money to think they’ve got to change their model. I’m hoping for six months instead of eight years from now.
Sounds like you’re rooting for failure.
I’m rooting for change! I think they’re smart enough to see that a change has to be made. – S.B.
In summer 2011, Cindy Funkhouser realized that she could no longer run First Friday. Enter Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project.
Hsieh recognized First Friday’s cultural importance, and acquired the rights to the event. He entrusted First Friday to Joey Vanas, an events and entertainment marketing expert who had helped promote Hsieh’s best-selling book, Delivering Happiness. Hsieh recognized that while Vanas had little art experience, he understood how to connect with large numbers of people and how to function under deadline—two skills vital to the production of a sprawling monthly festival.
This First Friday marks Vanas’ first year as its chief managing partner. And he couldn’t be happier. “I’m the biggest customer that First Friday has; I generally buy something every month,” he says. But while he’s thrilled that he and First Friday have come so far, he’s more interested in the future.
Your staff is you and four others. Does it ever seem like too much to handle?
In any big event, the two weeks before is all irons in the fire and everyone going crazy. We’ve got four stages, four bars, five blocks of areas that we’re covering, and 70 curated artists. We try to make sure that all of our resources and energy and dollars are put into making this happen and improving the experience for everyone. And I don’t see any end to that. I can hire two more people, and we’re just going to grow another 10,000 more participants … and then it’s going to be a 30,000-person event with six people working on it.
Downtown Project has created fashion and technology incubators. Is First Friday an art incubator?
One hundred percent. ... We’re looking 10, 20, 30 years ahead and trying to figure out how we can grow this thing in a way that it’s a huge value addition to everyone involved and everyone it touches. So we’re launching the First Friday Foundation at this next event.
What is the First Friday Foundation?
It’s going to be a nonprofit organization separate from First Friday Las Vegas. … First Friday Foundation will be a local artist’s best friend. ... The First Friday Foundation is really about integration—taking local artists and getting them commission projects where they will get paid. Commission projects will be a big part of this thing—a lot of civic art. In any city, civic art is kind of like an evolutionary indicator. We want to improve and enhance the civic art in our city.
What’s next for First Friday?
We want this thing to be a citywide event. Right now it’s in the Arts District, but the idea from the beginning was to expand out west toward The Smith Center and do another activation there, and then fill in the gaps between the Arts District and Fremont East. It’s a little bit over a mile, but seems like five miles because there’s nothing in between there.
I heard of a plan to put Burning Man art pieces on empty lots. Is that happening?
We’re working with Burning Man and the Black Rock Arts Foundation to bring some large-scale art here. It’s inked; it’s a done deal. Now we can really leverage the experience these people have in building community and in finding and selling large-scale pieces of art.
So downtown Vegas will be a Burning Man staging area?
It fits both our objectives. Our objective is to create community and foster creativity. Burning Man does both those things, and to a level most people will never achieve. Now, they’re trying to extend their culture to fit 52 weeks of the year, and we’ll be a testing ground for how well that can work.
Have you had to deal with festival bickering?
There’s lot of pent-up emotion. Over the years there’s been a lot of infighting that we’ve inherited. That’s been the most unique and difficult challenge for us, because we really want to keep this thing alive and keep everyone engaged and keep it as something that’s great for the community. So when people start to go back and forth and bicker, you just want to step back and be, like, “This is not what this thing is about.”
Will your work ever be done?
I can’t even comprehend that. Even in cities that are hundreds of thousands of years old, you always see creation and innovation. What’s exciting about Vegas right now is you see so much more of that, compared to other cities which are further along the timeline. ... I see this city, the Downtown Project, and First Friday in particular as having enormous room for growth. – G.C.