Whether one is a visitor, local, art connoisseur, or curious student, First Friday is an excellent way to explore Philadelphia’s rich culture and history.
Concentrated primarily between Second and Third streets between Arch and Race streets, First Friday is a monthly open house for galleries in Old City, drawing large, diverse crowds. First Friday is a rain or shine event, and is proudly never canceled — even when it falls on a holiday.
“It can rival even some of the sporting events,” said Arthur Meckler, vice president of the Old City Arts Association, established in 1991.
Meckler, who considers himself and his Third Street furniture store Reform a part of the “second wave” of businesses to participate in First Friday, began participating in the monthly event in the early to mid-1990s. Previous to that, he still attended First Friday — but then, just as a spectator.
Meckler said that, without a doubt, First Friday is the most successful ongoing monthly event in Philadelphia.
“There’s nothing that compares to it,” Meckler said.
Additionally, it’s a relaxed way to dip one’s feet into the Philadelphia art scene.
“There’s no right or wrong way to do Old City on First Friday,” Meckler said.
Aside from the galleries’ exhibits, First Friday draws street musicians, vendors and tons of energy, making for an incredibly festive atmosphere. While it’s a fun way to spend a Friday night, First Friday is a great asset to the city.
“It’s an economic engine for Philadelphia,” Meckler said.
Restaurants in the area love First Friday for the business it brings them, and hotels receive business from those who come from out of town just to experience the event, Meckler said.
While the popularity is great for the city’s economy, Meckler notes the difficulties of dealing with such a large and diverse turnout.
“It is actually sort of a victim of its own succes,” Meckler said, who noted that sometimes the rowdier, younger crowds can deter the more serious buyers from attending.
Additionally, Meckler said his business profits not on First Friday, but days later.
“I seldom sell anything on First Friday, but very often people do come back,” Meckler said.
A colleague of Meckler’s, Albert LeCoff, is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Art in Wood on 3rd Street, a gallery that frequently participates in First Friday. Since its relocation from 5th and Vine, the Center for Art in Wood has received noticeably more publicity, LeCoff said, noting the prime location of the Old City area.
A beautiful clean white space with enormous windows, LeCoff’s office mimics the design of the gallery space, which he said was intentional. The open atmosphere of the gallery is reminiscent of the open atmosphere of First Friday – its layout encourages one to wander, which is a frequent suggestion as the best method for exploring First Friday.
The pieces displayed in the Center for Art in Wood are created from using wood, paper included, as its main medium.
“Paper is thin wood, and wood is thick paper,” LeCoff said.
The center’s current show, allTURNatives: Form + Spirit 2012, is on display until Oct. 20 and will be a part of September’s First Friday on Sept. 7.
The show is the product of the center’s 17th “International Turning Exchange Residency.”
The artists who participated lived, collaborated and traveled to galleries together for two months. Four of the artists that participated this year were from Philadelphia, two were from Australia and one was from North Carolina. They utilized the studios and dormatories at University of the Arts.
LeCoff said one artist described it as the “summer camp I’d always wanted to go to.”
The program allows photojournalists to participate, as well. However, the photojournalist participants often do much more than just document the ITE. One created a functioning pinhole camera from a tree stump. Another eye-catching piece on display was a photo of a stump being chainsawed framed by the same stump in the photograph.
The pieces featured in the exhibit vary enormously, from style to size. Wooden bangles are on display and available for purchase and huge, woven installations from the same show hang over the gallery.
LeCoff, who formerly served as president of the Old City Arts Association, is passionate about the community aspect of those who make First Friday a reality.
“I believe in collaboration between all types of organizations,” LeCoff said.
Another essential factor to First Friday is its outstanding location in the distinct and historic Old City Philadelphia.
“What’s always been here is the history,” Lecoff said. “I don’t care about us or other organizations – we may move. But the Constitution Center and Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall — they’re never going to move. They’re not going to change their addresses. So we should work together to promote the rich culture that’s in Old City.”
While First Friday is a great way to acquaint oneself with the area, the “gallery crawl,” as LeCoff described it, is more than just a time for newcomers to explore the culture of Old City.
“This validates Philadelphia being a city of craft, and historically, Philadelphia is a city of craft,” LeCoff said.
Jenelle Janci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.