If you’ve ever been to the Downtown Phoenix area on the first Friday night of the month, you most likely noticed that the streets were alive with people. At First Fridays, thousands of residents and visitors gather to tour more than 70 galleries, venues and art-related shops in what has become one of the largest, free, self-guided art walks in the country.
The event has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1994, when it was “an informal, self-guided tour of art spaces Downtown,” says Greg Esser, a key player in the Artlink First Fridays program. Today, the events attract more than 15,000 people to the Downtown area each month.
Esser credits the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau (GPCVB) in part for the growth and success of First Fridays.
“The GPCVB has been a critical partner in making sure this success doesn’t remain a ‘best kept secret,’” he says. “ The efforts of the GPCVB have expanded the word-of-mouth phenomenon that started First Fridays, into national coverage and recognition for the event that now attracts visitors from well beyond the state line.”
Doug MacKenzie, director of communications for the GPCVB, calls First Fridays the perfect way to showcase “Downtown at dark,” as well as the talented artisans and vibrant art culture that exists and thrives in the area. He adds that First Fridays is just one of the “various segments that weave a pattern of hospitality and uniqueness” throughout the Downtown Phoenix area.
Beyond simply bringing people together on a Friday night to enjoy tours of local art galleries and museums, Esser believes, “The arts have been both a catalyst and a beneficiary of the growth and development of Downtown. Audiences have attracted new development and new development has attracted more audiences.”
Specifically, he notes Arizona State University’s new presence in Downtown and the development of the light rail as helping to give First Fridays events new life.
“The presence of ASU Downtown has infused new vitality, participation and programming on the part of students, staff and faculty,” he says. “Light rail has created a widely popular way to experience First Fridays without the challenges of parking Downtown.”
Despite the event’s success in attracting more and more people each year, it has not been immune to the state’s current economic troubles.
“The recent decline in consumer spending has created a significant strain on many of the businesses, artists and cultural organizations that are vital to Downtown,” Esser admits. “We have unfortunately lost a handful of businesses.”
This recognition of the harsh realities of the economic upheaval prompts Esser, who is now director of civic art for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, to send Valley residents a message.
“Now more than ever it is important to spend locally and support those who have committed all of their energy and resources into creating a more vibrant community Downtown,” he says.
He anticipates First Fridays attendance will continue to expand over the next five years from its current monthly status of 15,000 visitors.
“I hope to see that number continue to grow to where (we) attract 100,000 visitors that support the rich fabric of Downtown neighborhoods, including Roosevelt Row, Grand Avenue, Garfield, the Warehouse District, Melrose, Coronado, the Museum District and the newly emerging CityScape and East McDowell Arts District — 10,000 visitors in 10 Downtown neighborhoods,” Esser says.
MacKenzie echoes those sentiments and notes that the GPCVB’s marketing efforts highlight all the services in the Downtown Phoenix area, as well as unique events such as First Fridays. He believes that despite the economic challenges, Downtown Phoenix is starting to become a “destination Downtown” in which people come to check out an event and then stay at one of the new or revamped hotels in the area.
“There is a glimmer of hope,” MacKenzie says. “We just need the spirit to move forward.”
First Fridays runs all year from 6-10 p.m.
Free event shuttles run throughout the tour route, so you can get on/off wherever you choose.
The shuttles initiate at the Phoenix Art Museum, First Fridays’ headquarters.
Free parking is available at the museum, as well.
While local artists are highlighted, you can also check out pieces from national and international artists.