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First Fridays Revisited

With the Albright-Knox main campus closed for the expansion project, I recently took the opportunity to reconnect with Allentown First Fridays. I feel a personal connection to this monthly gallery walk as it started the month I moved to Buffalo from Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts, where I was involved in starting a similar event that became part of the regular rhythm of my life.

Like Rochester First Fridays, Allentown First Fridays got me acquainted with the Buffalo art scene, which is bursting and overflowing with talent. But in recent years I had drifted away from the event, in large part from developing a stronger interest in the work shown at the Albright-Knox at their monthly First Friday events. Those events seemed to improve over time to become “can’t miss,” and I also came to realize that many of their exhibits needed to be seen again and again to be fully appreciated.

At the same time, Allentown First Fridays have, frankly, suffered due to factors that Allentowners have struggled to grapple with: rising rents, “more bars in more places,” galleries closing, galleries moving to other parts of the city and even – hard to believe in a historic district – gallery space lost to demolition. The closure of Michael Mulley’s Queen City Gallery – which celebrates its 13th anniversary tonight at its new location in the Market Arcade – hit particularly hard as it was the hub of the event, always featuring several artists who were often on hand to discuss their work. Another big loss was Peter Caruso’s B West Studio, with its unique, edgy vibe, to Kaisertown where it became that great neighborhood’s first gallery. Those incremental losses added up over the last decade to the point where, on a First Friday a couple of years ago, I found not a single gallery open west of Delaware Avenue.

Yet despite all – including the recent street reconstruction – Allentown First Friday keeps on keeping on. El Museo, Studio Hart, Indigo Art, and Buffalo Big Print remain in a cluster between Delaware Avenue and Pearl Street, along with some good eateries, in a two-block stretch Jane Jacobs would have loved. They all regularly produce shows that – literally – change the way I look at things, which is kind of the point of art. And El Museo has taken things to a new level under curator Bryan Lee and Executive Director William Vogel, continuing the tradition of exhibits that make you think and see our society differently, and extending that into questions of how decisions about our built environment and infrastructure affect everyone in our society. It has been amazing to watch how these curators at a gallery that focuses on communities that have been traditionally under-represented in the arts have succeeded in bringing more engagement to some of these issues than the largely white, middle-class organizations that are typically involved.

Curator Bryan Lee conducts a curator’s tour at El Museo on First Friday in January.

Also injecting an activist sensitivity has been the ¡Buen Vivir! Gallery for Contemporary Art in the former B West space at 148 Elmwood. Co-founded by activists and photographers Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle, the gallery is part of the Global Justice Media Program of the Global Justice Ecology Project, with a focus on global environmental and indigenous rights issues. Given that, needless to say, the founders have been busier than ever. Recently, they were out of town for months covering Chile’s People’s Uprising, something of which most Americans remain ignorant due to scanty media attention. But Anne and Orin are working to change that, and will be opening a major exhibit of their own photo and video coverage of the uprising for April’s First Friday. You can find a preview here.

At January’s First Friday, the cluster of galleries east of Delaware made a strong showing, with my first stop being a curator’s tour at El Museo with Bryan Lee of the closing exhibit Resolutions featuring art by Frani Evedon, Hope Mora, and Joshua Nickerson. Next door, smartly drawing foot traffic with a sidewalk display – proof that it pays to advertise – was the new French Girl spa, whose proprietor Dani Weiser is also a talented artist. And down the block at Indigo Gallery I found the Robert Hirsch show Mugs: Anthropometric Portraits and the Blurring of Social Identity. It was as intriguing and engaging as its name suggests, and the camera simply didn’t want to leave.

Future Fridays

Altogether, January’s First Friday served as a reminder that an Allentown First Friday can be every bit as sensory-rich, mind-altering, and eye-opening as a First Friday at our large, world-class gallery. Note that saying “can be” implies “not always are,” and further implies “should be.” All true. It got me thinking about what could be done to bring Allentown First Fridays from the hit-and-miss it has been recently back to the consistent hits it seemed to have a decade ago? Several things, I think.

First and foremost, for arts Fridays in the community to achieve their true potential, they can’t continue to overlap with M&T First Fridays at the Albright-Knox. The fact that our region’s top visual arts institution and our top visual arts neighborhood both have what amounts to their monthly signature event and (essentially) open house on the same evening every month simply makes no sense.

Buffalo needs to take its arts Fridays to the next level, to capitalize on being the region’s cultural capital – with more culture per capita – and build more cultural capital.

Second, having the first three M&T Friday arts events at separate institutions in the cultural district next to Delaware Park – the Albright-Knox, the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, and the Buffalo History Museum – tends to reinforce the silos that those institutions are (sadly) in. What if, instead, those cultural institutions came together like the institutions that formed the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) to promote a common identity as a cultural district without diminishing each institution’s unique mission? As I wrote here, an umbrella organization perhaps akin to BNMC for the cultural district could create a common identity through streetscape elements, signage, district-wide event planning, and even ticket packages that could allow families to spend an entire day in the cultural district. Also essential, it could develop common infrastructure projects benefiting all the institutions like structured/underground parking and transit improvements.

Having such an umbrella entity would also make it easier to have First Friday events promoting the entire cultural district, rather than separate institutions on separate weeks. A district-wide event could even be expanded to make it a “First Saturday” or even a “First Weekend” to make it easier for families to take part and featuring enough art and enough variety to keep a family immersed in our region’s top cultural offerings in our region’s top cultural landscape.

Mugs: Anthropometric Portraits and the Blurring of Social Identity. Exhibit of work by Robert Hirsch at Indigo Art Gallery, January

Third, M&T should consider an arts Friday devoted to arts in the community outside the big institutions. M&T is wise to invest in arts and culture, because they know all too well that to attract top talent to Buffalo – and keep it here – we need a thriving cultural scene. But that scene is just as much in the community as it is in institutions. And our communities – places like Allentown – need arts and culture to thrive. Such a shift in mindset would be consistent with M&T’s recent moves in tech, recognizing the need to build a thriving tech culture by creating a tech community at its new “tech hub,” which aims to get tech workers out of starched-shirt corporate or bleak back-office settings into something akin to a thriving innovation district. The new tech workers M&T is recruiting, then, may find more affinity with more informal, community places like Allentown than the glass-and-marble boxes of the cultural district.

Arts Fridays in the community are also about experiencing the uniqueness of Buffalo’s neighborhoods.

What might an M&T community arts Friday look like? Consider the amount M&T must spend every weekend for an institutional arts Friday, and imagine the leverage that amount could have in a community like Allentown for an arts Friday event: it would take it to a new level. How? By helping to cover the cost of things like event signage, posters, live music, refreshments, and even security to help shut down a section of street. By helping to cover increased staff time for the galleries and the neighborhood organization that puts on the event.

And that support could even be opened up to other communities and organizations interested in organizing events featuring the art spaces in their community, perhaps through a funding application mechanism. Applicants might be neighborhood organizations like the Allentown Association or arts organizations like Hallwalls, BAS, Essex Street, CEPA, or Locust Street. The events would give those organizations and the communities that host them the same opportunity to be featured by an arts Friday event and perhaps even serve as the hub for such an event in their community.

The promise of such funding from M&T and the need to submit coherent event plans to obtain it could help foster new levels of coordination and collaboration where they don’t already exist. Preference could be given to event plans that involve local non-arts business like restaurants to create a multiplier effect to boost the entire community.

Although such a community arts Friday probably wouldn’t trump First Friday at the Albright Knox, what if it was a Fourth Friday? That way, in November, people could make it part of their “Black Friday” shopping, and in December everyone would get a month off for the holidays. In Corning, they brand their arts Friday as “Final Friday,” on the fourth Friday of each month.

While this would mean that neighborhoods around the city could tap into funding for an arts Friday – not just Allentown – Allentown would almost certainly continue to have the top such event because of its history of putting on these events as well as the number of galleries and arts venues to tap into.

Finally, media partnerships are essential, and underutilized to date by all arts Friday events. For example, I’ve always wondered why those organizing and funding arts Fridays, whether at big institutions or in the community, do not take better advantage of non-traditional media and social media to maximize their events. That would apply to every aspect of the event, from promotion to creating “buzz” to sharing photos and videos of art and the people enjoying it. Non-traditional media is extremely visual and very in-the-moment, making it essential in promoting, capturing, documenting, and widely sharing arts events.

Such partnerships could help assure that on arts Fridays in Buffalo, everyone looking at a screen knows about the arts events going on, where things are happening, where to grab a bite to eat before or after, and how to interact with the event. That interaction could be, for example, by being part of scavenger hunts in which every person or team capturing and sharing images of art and art venues could be eligible for drink tickets or a drawing for a signed print at a venue after the event.

Buffalo needs to take its arts Fridays to the next level, to capitalize on being the region’s cultural capital – with more culture per capita – and build more cultural capital.

Get connected:

Allentown First Friday FB

Albright-Knox First Friday (this month: Rodney Taylor Memorial Celebration at Albright-Knox Northland)

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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