It’s a milestone year for First Friday, the monthly art walk promoted by Artlink in downtown Phoenix since 1994. Typically, people celebrate reaching a 25-year anniversary. But there’s little cause for celebration, at least in Roosevelt Row, where the tradition has devolved into a mere street fair.
Nowadays, it’s more art squawk than art walk.
Thousands of people stream down Roosevelt Street like cattle trapped in narrow chutes during First Fridays, bound in by temporary barriers separating sidewalks from the street.
They’re surrounded by police officers directing traffic, and doing crowd control.
Relatively few make forays into galleries that dot the street or spend significant time lingering over the artwork.
Instead, they’re bombarded with street preachers warning that hell and brimstone await the unrepentant and a sea of white tents where artisans who’ve paid $50 to carve out a little calm in a vast expanse of chaos sell everything from earrings to soap.
Of course, some people never make it to Roosevelt Row galleries, discouraged by the challenge of finding free parking. Others figure it’s easier to hit spaces like Phoenix Art Museum, instead of heading to galleries where artists are trying to eke out a decent living.
The so-called arts district has morphed into an entertainment district. According to the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, it’s bounded by 16th Street and Seventh Avenue between Fillmore Street and the Interstate 10. Lately, they’ve been calling it an artists’ district. Absurd.
Most people gather at local bars instead of art spaces. And artists are left to wonder whether the art walk is becoming just another casualty of gentrification — an artifact of an earlier time when artists created the energy that’s drawn real estate developers like Baron Properties, True North Studio, and Desert Viking to the area.
Some staples, like The Lost Leaf on Fifth Street south of Roosevelt Row, remain. Others, including Eye Lounge and MADE, are transforming. Several art spaces, like Five15 Arts, have simply moved on.
Eye Lounge and MADE are being reconfigured as part of a new Greenwood Brewery project, with changes expected to include a change in Eye Lounge’s footprint, so its entrance shifts from Roosevelt to Fifth Street.
Fifth Street has taken a big hit in recent years, as bungalows changed owners and creatives like JB Snyder lost their art spaces. Once a hub for artists who resist the art districts mentality, it’s become a First Friday staging area for white tents and pop-up marketing gimmicks by companies catering to the hipster crowd.
Hell, people aren’t even paying attention to El Mac’s iconic mural painted with Augustine Kofie on the former Flowers building anymore. Instead, it looms as a symbol of rampant disrespect for artists and signals the message that commerce trumps creativity here.
Murals commissioned by developers feel like exercises in corporate branding. They’re selfie backdrops for the First Friday crowds.
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First Friday isn’t all bad, of course. A handful of galleries still present compelling artwork. And some creatives, like the guy who types poems for people along Roosevelt Street, still break through the noise.
A sense of wonder still infuses the Grand Avenue arts scene on First Friday, where you can find groups of artists painting together along the sidewalk, or building impromptu art installations in courtyards off the beaten path. And art happens in other pockets of the city during First Fridays, as well.
But it’s a farce to call First Friday an art walk. It’s the Phoenix equivalent of ancient Rome’s bread and circuses, designed to distract people from the erosion of civic life.
First Friday is a street fair, pure and simple. And it’s a sorry substitute for the kind of real support artists should be receiving in the nation’s fifth-largest city. Artists deserve better, and it’s about time the city, the community, and creatives themselves figure out how to make that happen.