Crossroads for the Artwalk

Next time you head downtown for the First Friday artwalk, don't be surprised to wait in line to see the art, particularly on Roosevelt Street between Central Avenue and Sixth Street. Even if you easily make it through the door at a gallery, you'll have to literally rub shoulders with people slowly plodding through the room, wiping sweat from their faces and craning their necks to see what's hanging on the walls, or who's packed into those Seven jeans. Outside, the crowd -- and the air -- will be just as thick.

In the entertainment business, a packed house is a good thing. Unless you're a gallery owner counting off the bodies cramming into your small space on the first Friday of the month in downtown Phoenix. In this particular scenario, more people don't necessarily equal more art sales, and worse, arts organizers worry the numbers could end the First Friday event as we've come to know it. Rumors are swirling about police crackdowns; the cops say they plan to start with warnings. Gallery owners are scrambling to come up with options -- Third Friday, Saturday After, appointments with art collectors -- and the mayor has vowed his support.

But some observers of the downtown scene (such as it is) wonder quietly if it's too little, too late. Is the party almost over?

Organizers estimate that as many as 10,000 people -- many of them underage kids, some with open containers of alcohol -- packed downtown on the first Friday in August. Contrast that with last summer, when the crowds were sparse. With fall approaching and the temperatures cooling, the numbers will only continue to grow.

Thing is, success has come with new, unexpected challenges. Having more people at First Fridays has led to parking problems, capacity concerns, and noise complaints. And some visitors have decided to pass over the wine and cheese at the art openings and simply bring their own six-packs. Now it's not uncommon to see people toting bottles of beer between galleries.

"Maybe we're the easy target to put a face on all that," says John Logan, singer and guitarist for the local garage band The MadCaPs, who have been performing impromptu First Friday concerts out of the back of a pickup truck for almost two years, and were stopped by a police officer last month, after a noise complaint. Logan says that while the band has gotten a great reception from the public -- including cops on the First Fridays beat -- he's now wondering whether the incident is a sign that First Friday arrests are in the future.

Artlink, the volunteer-run group that organizes First Fridays, held its quarterly advisory board meeting last month. At the top of the agenda: crowd control. Michael 23, an Artlink board member and the owner of Central Avenue's Thought Crime gallery, said, "There's been a concern, especially from law enforcement, about open containers, music, and parking." He explained that Artlink needs to let member gallery owners know what their responsibilities are. "It's a proactive attempt to educate, so that we're not causing any conflicts."

Michael 23 also announced that October will be the official launch of two new monthly Artlink gallery events: Saturday After (to be held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays after First Friday) and Third Fridays (to be held from 6 to 10 p.m.). The intention is to spread out the First Friday crowd to other times to make it more manageable. First Fridays have already expanded hours to a 6 p.m. start time instead of the original 7 p.m.

It's not just the number of visitors that's booming. New art spaces seem to open up every month. Several new spaces have cropped up on Grand Avenue, the Kitchenette photo collective just formed and is showing its work at Sixth Street Studios off Roosevelt, and Artlink president Shari Bombeck and several other local artists plan to open Red Dog Gallery in a historic house in the Roosevelt District in October. Bombeck says that the number of spaces participating in First Fridays has quadrupled over the past three years, and that a record 80 art spaces will participate in the October First Friday, which officially kicks off the new season for Artlink.

Cindy Dach, an Artlink volunteer and also a founding member of eye lounge, 515 gallery and Sixth Street Studio, says that sales have gone up, too. Since downtown galleries don't want to compete with Scottsdale's Thursday night art walk, spaces on Roosevelt have been opening at 5 p.m. on First Fridays for collectors who come downtown early to buy art and beat the crowds.

Dach is optimistic about tackling the issues that the galleries are dealing with. "What I want to see is the city help restaurants and bars open up down here. That's why Scottsdale doesn't have an open container problem."

Instead of opting for a heavy-handed crackdown with a swift series of arrests -- people violating the open container law are usually committing a class 2 misdemeanor, after all, which carries a maximum penalty of four months in jail and/or a $750 fine -- Commander Jeff Hynes of the Phoenix Police Department's Central City precinct says that the police will first try to inform revelers of the laws.

"We're not going out for enforcement," Hynes says. "We're going out for education." He acknowledges that there have been some First Friday noise complaints, and that the increased crowds have caused parking and trash problems. (The Phoenix Police Department was unable to provide detailed statistics by New Times' deadline.) But he's mainly concerned about keeping the event safe and enjoyable for everyone downtown. "We want the place to feel inviting," he says.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon says he sees First Fridays' growing pains as a sign of good momentum for Phoenix. "The good news is that now we are beginning to experience issues that nobody would've dreamed of," he says. First Fridays have brought energy and connectivity to places that didn't used to be connected, as well as building uses that weren't anticipated 10 or 20 years ago, he says. For example, many of the art spaces have flourished in buildings that used to be homes, which naturally creates problems with noise and the co-existence of businesses alongside residences.

"I think the biggest challenge we're going to have is just communication," Gordon says. "You know, what is occurring is an urban fabric, and some areas just aren't used to it. These are the type of problems any mayor of any major city would like to have -- a downtown that is trying to balance uses, as opposed to some of the mayors that I've talked to in other cities where people are fleeing the downtown and the downtown is deteriorating."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8497.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig