Putting the art back in First Fridays
Community Events Open House
5-7 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Carbondale Library
First Friday Commission meeting
9:30 a.m. the second Thursday of every month at Third Street Center
In less than a decade, Carbondale’s First Friday has transformed from a sedate art walk to an all-night carnival of drinking, dining and carrying on.
While many local residents and business owners support the shift, others miss the artistic focus or resent the party scene. With the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities returning to Main Street in October, organizers hope to strike a balance that will please everyone.
Attendees of recent First Fridays may find it difficult to imagine the event in its infancy – around 2005. CCAH, then based in half the building that now hosts Beer Works, and the Clay Center hosted openings with new exhibits and a little wine or food. Galleries and other businesses along the four blocks of downtown between the two stayed open late and provided a few refreshments of their own. The streets remained open, the late night scene was no more frenzied than usual, and the only music was the weekly performance at Steve’s Guitars and the occasional band at the Nugget.
“The original vision was to bring vibrancy to the arts and to downtown. A lot of business really rallied and did great things,” recalled CCAH director Amy Kimberly.
“I think that it’s a natural progression that if a lot of people are in town, then they want to eat, and the bar scene grew from that. The art part of it became less evident, although it’s still there.”
Shortly after CCAH moved to the Third Street Center, away from the breakneck pace of an opening every First Friday. SAW tried to participate when it opened on Euclid, but eventually took to scheduling openings not to conflict.
After the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce took over, more downtown businesses began timing events to coincide with First Fridays.
“I remember it being a big struggle to get community involvement, and that doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore,” said Steve Standiford of Steve’s Guitars, who will help coordinate Celtic Fest for the First Friday in October. “I think it has helped create vitality.”
More events brought more people to town, and soon it became necessary to close the streets during the busy summer months.
“It’s a safety issue,” explained Jeff Jackel, Carbondale Parks and Recreation director. “Our sidewalks are so narrow we just can’t safely accommodate that number of people. We’ve had near misses when we didn’t have street closures.”
At the beginning of this year, the chamber began selling sponsorships for the event. Several businesses leaped at the chance to publicize the event and set up a tent downtown.
That has sparked some controversy.
“The Chamber of Commerce has overstepped its responsibilities in turning First Friday into a street fair,” said Frank Norwood, co-owner of Main Street Gallery and the Framer.
Norwood has been vocal in his objections to street closures, which he believes discourage people from wandering into businesses. He particularly resents sponsorship from out-of-town businesses – regardless of whether they’re members of the Carbondale chamber.
The current dynamic, he says, doesn’t help sell art or bolster the artistic community
“Maybe twice in 10 years have I sold enough on a First Friday to pay for the refreshments I served.” he said. “It’s never been profitable on that night, but it used to be worth doing because it brought people into the gallery. They met friends, they met us and they saw the artists and what we do.”
The Carbondale chamber takes a longer view of the economic benefits.
“Our whole goal for First Friday is not about First Friday – it’s about bringing people back,” said executive director Andrea Stewart. “Maybe they don’t buy something on First Friday, but you’re exposing the business and the town.”
Some downtown establishments do see an immediate impact.
“It exposes the town to a lot of people, and it makes for a great night,” said Skip Bell, manager of the Pour House.
“I do more business. I wouldn’t stay open if I didn’t,” said Sidney Poncelet of European Antiques. Still, she sympathizes with Norwood’s nostalgia.
“I wish it wasn’t as chaotic as it is. I preferred the pace of the first First Fridays,” she said. “I don’t know if you can really turn back the clock, but it would be great if we could have more of an art element and something for everyone.”
Kimberly thinks CCAH’s move to the old Gordon Cooper Library building – which opens Oct. 9 as “The Launchpad” – will help bring some of that dynamic back.
“The art walk was really special. I miss it, and I know others do, too,” she said. “It’s very timely to make it a part of First Friday on a consistent basis again. I’m very excited to come full circle and combine the two elements.”
That probably won’t happen for upcoming cold-weather First Fridays like Light up Carbondale in December or ice skating in January, although CCAH plans to be open late each month regardless of whether they have a new exhibit to show off.
Kimberly is hoping to start reintroducing the artistic element at Fat Friday in February and throughout next year. The First Friday in June typically coincides with new Art Around Town, which should provide an additional boost.
“I’m sure if we just start associating the First Friday with art again it will spring back.”
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