A Festival in Transition

First Friday returns to its nonprofit roots in hopes of rallying community support

Back in summer 2002, I heard the phrase “First Friday” for the first time. My friend Julie Brewer, former proprietor of groundbreaking Downtown café Enigma, told me that her friends Cindy Funkhouser and Naomi Arin were starting up a limited liability company, Whirligig, to stage a monthly gallery crawl between the gallery at Funkhouser’s Funk House antiques shop and Wes Isbutt’s Arts Factory complex.

Brewer said our First Friday would be Las Vegas’ answer to such gallery crawls as Portland’s First Thursday. She also said she wasn’t sure she wanted to be involved with it. “I’m not ready for all the headaches, all the complaints, all the bullshit. But I’ll help Cindy and Naomi run it until the City steps in to take it over.”

“We need to organize the board, produce budgets for the year ahead, and figure out what future activations will look like.”

The City of Las Vegas never did step in, even as First Friday grew from a two-stop gallery crawl to a full-blown, sprawling street festival—one that became massively expensive to run. In 2011, an investment group that included Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh bought First Friday; earlier this year, Hsieh passed control of the festival to Wendoh Media, whose holdings include this magazine.

Now, under the guidance of Joey Vanas—First Friday’s managing partner since 2011—the festival is about to begin its third stage of its life, one that’s close to Julie Brewer’s original goal for the festival: It’s being merged with Vanas’ 501(c)(3)-status First Friday Foundation to become a true nonprofit entity.

“We hope to carry First Friday to the point that’s it’s self-propegating,” says Vanas, who will serve as executive director of a newly appointed First Friday advisory board that includes members of the community who are invested in the festival’s survival. The board will include Arts District business owners—including Art Square owner Jonathan Kermani and festival co-founder Funkhouser—and a broad selection of key local businesspeople and community leaders, among them City Councilman Bob Coffin, Moonridge Group owner Julie Murray and Downtown Cocktail Room/Emergency Arts proprietor Michael Cornthwaite.

“It’s a cross-section of the entire Valley—casinos, nonprofits, arts organizations,” Vanas says. “We needed [this board of directors] to be as inclusive as possible.”

So what does all this mean going forward? Well, in the short term, the new nonprofit is taking off the months of July and August to regroup and devise a new blueprint. (There will be a small-scale festival July 3, produced largely by Marlene Reid, a new First Friday board member and owner of Unhinged Art Boutique, as well as a few private businesses on the south side of Charleston Boulevard.) “We need to organize the board, produce budgets for the year ahead, and figure out what future activations will look like,” Vanas says.

Put another way: It’s now the responsibility of the Downtown, arts and small-business communities to hammer this thing into a new shape, one that can actually support itself while giving the galleries, restaurants and boutiques surrounding the Arts District, Fremont East and the Gay and Lesbian Center of Southern Nevada the boost they need to grow and flourish. It’s a tall order, and knowing what I know of the “headaches, complaints and bullshit” that Whirligig once weathered with a beleaguered grin, it’s a task that the new board will need every minute of two months to nail down.

Luckily, it appears plenty of people are willing to work the hours and take the knocks. “We were gonna have a board of 10 people. Then it became 12 people. Then more,” Vanas says. “Everyone we’ve asked join the board believes this is worth their while.”

Vegas Seven