First Friday is conveniently alliterative and a simple enough concept: On the first Friday evening of every month, the 40-plus art galleries, museums, shops and theaters of Old City host free open houses. Many of these events serve free hors d’oeuvres and wine, a decision that guarantees First Fridays will always draw big crowds of diverse people – not the least of these groups being college students.
Actually, the size of the attraction is rather impressive, considering that it’s fairly unpublicized. Its continued success and popularity, however, is a pretty neat indicator of the breadth of Philadelphia’s commitment to the contemporary art world. All of the organizations that participate in First Friday are members of the Old City Arts Association, the group that established the monthly tradition.
Old City, being the antiquarian part of town that it is, has been referred to as “the most historic square mile in America,” and was once where Philadelphia’s industries were centered. After industry had relocated for the most part, the many charming old buildings left vacant became artists’ lofts. By the early 1970s, Old City had become an active community which continued to expand in the following decades.
As a result of this growth, primarily fueled by the many artists and their businesses, in 1991 the Old City Arts Association was founded; one of the very first functions of the association was the establishment of First Friday, which has ever since been a staple “thing to do” in Philadelphia.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the monthly open houses is the informality. First Friday is a bustling, noisy and – regardless of which gallery – crowded affair; it lacks the somber quietude of many museums and allows the spectator to casually enjoy art and interacting without the necessity of being a buyer or collector. Often times, galleries use First Friday as an occasion to preview exhibits or gauge reaction to artists. Also, during the Philadelphia Fringe Art Festivals, many performances are taken to the streets of Old City.
So what can one expect when going to First Friday? Each business has its area; galleries like Pentimenti specialize in contemporary abstract and representational painting, while the Wood Turning Center features carved wood sculptures. Last Friday, Isaiah Zagar (the creator of South Street’s Magic Garden) had work in a show in one gallery, while another on Second Street featured prints of famous early hip-hop and graffiti artists. Likewise, it isn’t all art galleries – plenty of places sell unique furniture or original clothing.
If you’re interested and haven’t gone, the name says it all: First Friday of every month, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., “rain or shine.” For links to all of its member organizations, as well as detailed information about upcoming programs, visit the Web site www.oldcityarts.org. The best thing to expect when approaching First Friday, however, is that you’re not going to see the same thing twice, and it would be foolish to try and see everything in one evening.
Marilyn Peck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.