First Friday Las Vegas faces new funding challenge in 2008

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(capital h gallery, First Friday, October 2006)

What started as hushed rumors last month has developed into full-blown — and painful — truth: the City of Las Vegas has cut its funding for the monthly First Friday arts festival in downtown Las Vegas, forcing Whirlygig, Inc. — the nonprofit that runs the event — to turn to its patrons for support.

“We believe the thousands of people who participate in First Friday want to see it continue, and will willingly make this small gesture of support,” said Whirlygig executive director Nancy Higgins in a press release. “We also thank the City of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs for all they have done over the past five years and for what they will continue to do for this popular community event in the future.”

Just what the city will continue to do is act as host sponsor for only six events during the year, reportedly in the milder months, to better capitalize on opportunities for increased participation in the festival. Outside of that $80,000 annual sponsorship, Whirlygig is left to its own devices to support the festival’s hard costs — security, stages, power, toilets, lighting, etc. — and that means (you all saw this coming, right?) asking all First Friday attendees for a $2 donation. Remember those fences that went up around the heart of the festival on Casino Center Boulevard starting last year? Those gates will now become donation-making access points.

Now, $2 a month per person is not a lot to ask. And certain sponsors are offering incentives, such as drink discounts at the Downtown Cocktail Room and Big Island Smoothies, with the sticker each paid admission receives. But here’s the question: How does this help the art scene grow? The answer is: Even though it obviously won’t, maybe it shouldn’t.

For years now, what started as a relatively small gathering of a few hundred people in 2002 has slowly turned into a bloated street party that lost its connection to the original purpose, which we think had something to do with connecting artists and art-lovers. The festival likely reached critical mass long before its fifth anniversary last October, and with the development of the Fremont East Entertainment District, “First Friday” now has two meanings: The art festival, in which both artists and patrons have lost interest; and the pub crawl, which has increased in popularity to the point that for many people, “First Friday” starts at 10 p.m. inside the Beauty Bar.

Whirlygig has taken certain measures to try and revive the festival, especially the increasingly sparse offerings on Casino Center. Brian and Jennifer Henry, who ran capital h gallery inside the Arts Factory for a number of years (and who currently produce the First Friday Newsletter), have been tapped to curate the tents along Casino Center. However, especially starting with the coldest months of the year, the resourceful couple has an uphill battle ahead.

Some voices in the scene have anonymously noted this signals not only the death of First Friday, but also the Vegas art scene in general. Others speculate — as we do — that this could be just the thing needed to cut the fat from the bloated event and return it to a beacon for the art scene, not the beached whale it seems to have become.

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