Downtown Phoenix is not the downtown of most major cities. The only nights the sidewalks don’t look like a scene from 28 Days Later are: 1) when there’s an Arizona Diamondbacks game 2) when there’s a Phoenix Suns game 3) during First Friday Art Walk.
The importance of First Fridays to the Phoenix scene cannot be overstated. First Friday started in the early 80’s with a handful of local artists getting together the first Friday of every month and displaying in four studios and a gallery. It has since grown to include hundreds of local, national, and international artists displaying in 50+ spaces including the Phoenix Art Museum, studios, galleries, coffee shops, bars, restaurants and even hair salons – almost anywhere with wall-space.
Despite there being no cover charges at the doors, many venues feature live music, DJs, spoken word, etc. If you show up early enough in the night, you can score some free wine, beer, and cheese (why even discuss art unless you can do it holding a plastic cup of red wine and accentuating your points by waving a piece of cheese held by a toothpick in the air?). Plus, the most important thing of all, there is plenty of quality art at reasonable prices.
First Friday is a beacon of light for the aesthetically-frustrated people that live in an otherwise culturally apathetic city.
The driving force behind First Friday is Artlink, a non-profit corporation whose goal is to bring together artists, the public, and businesses for a greater appreciation of the arts. Beatrice Moore (one of the founding artists of First Friday) founded Artlink in 1988 as an all-volunteer, artist-run organization with a mission to develop a strong and vital downtown Phoenix arts community. According to Scott Sanders, artist/owner of The Paper Heart, a downtown Phoenix art gallery, coffee shop, and alternative-performance venue, Artlink has done just that.
"First Friday has exploded so much that you almost don’t even need anybody to organize it, it’s just there," he says. "We have over 300 people come through here every First Friday."
The Paper Heart may be one of the more popular stops on the First Friday circuit (it was named by Phoenix Magazine and The Phoenix New Times as the Best Venue for Alternative Entertainment) but, many other locations are pulling in similar crowds. Scott went on to state that over the past couple years the arts district has really started to explode.
"I think that has a lot with us staying here through the summer and keeping regular hours with our art spaces. When we opened two years ago, we were the first to have regular hours," he said. "We didn’t have the espresso bar at that time, but people could come in and watch us create whatever we were working on at that time. Others studios and spaces are now also starting to add daytime hours, albeit on weekends. It’s evolved so much in the last few years that we’re looking to open another space in the warehouse district. It’s going to be tens times the size of our current location and we’re going incorporate artist studios, so people can work there."
Another reason the Phoenix art scene is blowing up is simple economics. The cost of living in downtown Phoenix is relatively cheap compared to other major US cities. Artists can rent lofts and studios with plenty of wall space for very little a month.
The City of Tempe, which borders Phoenix and is only a 15 minute drive from downtown, also has an art scene and its own art walk, Final Friday (I’m sure you can guess what night of the month that is). Tempe, however, is much more geared towards the college-town mentality, Arizona State University being located at its heart. Lofts and artist studios are few and far between and when you do find one, it’s too expensive. Still, with the Phoenix art scene growing, Tempe is doing their best to carve out a niche.
Jes Jordan, owner/manager of Wet Paint Art Supply & Gallery in Tempe, is at the forefront, being the one who began Final Friday and continues to push its growth. "Tempe is not geared towards art as much as it was 10 to 15 years ago, but we’re trying to change all that," she said. "Final Friday has being going on for about a year and a half. We have pretty much the same crowd that goes out to First Friday. Downtown Phoenix is more geared towards art, but it’s only 15 minutes away from us."
Final Friday began with Wet Paint as the only space, but within the last two months has grown to eight spaces showing art and having live performances, including b-boys, DJs, live bands, alternative comedy, and poetry readings.
With two nights a month dedicated to the promotion and appreciation of art and a wealth of local talent, it’s only a matter of time before The Phoenix/Tempe art scene garners the local and national recognition it deserves. Artists just need to keep pounding it out. This kind of energy has thrived in the past, but, for wahtever reason, it’s always died out. I think Scott Sanders summed it up best with this:
"People just need to keep working at it. We are. I know at least ten other artists that are fulltime, just working out of their studios, doing their artwork and doing some commercial crap that’s generally not their style so they can continue what they’re doing. That’s better than flipping burgers somewhere."
Better than flipping burgers indeed, Scott, better than flipping burgers indeed.
(Included in Half Empty #2)