Mention Philly’s art scene, and someone is bound to reference First Friday, the monthly art event in which galleries stay open late(ish) and woo visitors with cheap drinks, voluminous socializing and freshly hung art. Phillyartgalleries.com advertises itself as “Your comprehensive resource for Philadelphia art galleries,” and it’s probably the most visible site for info on the art fest. But start clicking on links and you might begin to wonder whether you’ve stumbled upon a parable in the form of a space/time rupture. Many of the links in the “participating galleries” list lead nowhere, bits of information seem grossly outdated and the ’90s-era interface suggests that while the art scene has progressed, time has stood still for the website. It may be a gloomy litmus test but it makes us wonder: Is First Friday failing to keep up with an arts scene that has swollen well beyond the cobbled streets of Old City?
Begun in 1991 by the Old City Art Association, First Friday was firmly rooted in what is now a touristy and increasingly trendy neighborhood. Today, Old City offers up a dense cluster of commercial galleries but its draw for people on the hunt for experimental art has weakened considerably in the face of an exodus of nonprofit spaces. Forced to find a new building when the Convention Center expanded in 2008, Vox Populi (319 N. 11th St.) moved to Chinatown while Temple Gallery (2001 N. 13th St.) abandoned its Old City digs in 2009 for Kensington.
“I stopped going to Old City when Temple moved,” says Philly-based artist Anthony Campuzano, whose refrain appears to be common among the younger art-savvy set. As significant presenters of emerging art, both Vox’s and Temple’s moves precipitated a northerly shift in the migratory patterns of concentrated gallery-hopping. In fact, the First Friday scene has become so entrenched in the Chinatown area that—just like any hotspot du jour—it already has its detractors. “Vox is really more of a social scene on First Fridays,” observes First Friday attendee David Lentz, 26. (Also a familiar refrain for 20-something art lovers.) So whether it’s Old City or the Vox building, First Friday scores high on people-watching and low on art-gazing—which may be why some galleries choose to avoid the event altogether.
It’s telling that Bodega (253 N. Third St.)—the only artist-run space in Old City whose name carries serious cred with the Chinatown and Kensington crowd—pointedly abstains. Likewise, spaces in Kensington approach First Friday with leery skepticism and minced words. “We participate in First Fridays occasionally now, but we don’t like to let that structure determine how long our shows run, and when they open,” writes Derek Frech of Extra Extra (1524 Frankford Ave.) in an email. Angela Jerardi of Flux Space (3000 N. Hope St.) agrees. She says Flux isn’t eager to be associated with “what feels like a bar crawl for art.” Instead, it has openings on Saturdays.
For dissidents like Lentz, who are on the prowl for an art-viewing experience minus the “seen and be seen” vibe, Kensington offers something different. The newly reopened gallery Little Berlin (2430 Coral St.) embodies the ethos of this expanded scene. According to co-founder Kristen Neville-Taylor, Little Berlin moved to East Kensington to stretch its legs in “a less residential space in order to garner the freedom to host a wider gamut of events and performances.”
Like Little Berlin, Flux Space relishes the expansive freedom of its remote location and self-selecting audience: “When people come to Flux they really come to see the art,” Jerardi says. The same can’t be said for the crowds at most successful First Friday venues, although what other spaces may lack in gravitas, most people would agree they make up for with fun. At this point, First Friday is off the table for Flux Space, in part because Jerardi doesn’t think they could draw the crowd to their far-flung location.
Given the art scene’s steady march to the north, First Friday may well remain a southern soiree, leaving the Chinatown/Kensington/NoLibs galleries to decide whether they should be creating their own art-viewing extravaganza. Second Saturdays, anyone?
Click here for PW's July 1 First Friday picks.
Don't miss the art party! This Friday, a Portland-based artist pins nature under a microscope; five Philadelphia natives riff on the urban environment; and a Port Richmond show explores attempts at representing the world.
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide