Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

BLOCK PARTY

First Fridays program aims to bring gallery-goers and other culturally curious folks into the Exchange after hours

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If you build it, they will come.

So if you switch on lights and throw open doors, will hundreds of people start checking out art galleries, artists' studios and funky boutiques in the Exchange District on designated Friday nights?

Will they stop to eat and drink while wandering the historic, culture-infused neighbourhood, then spread the word so the idea gathers momentum?

That's the vision behind First Fridays, a new, year-round program aimed at creating a vibrant scene in the Exchange from 5 to 9 p.m. on the first Friday of every month.

First Fridays was launched in July, so this Friday marks the second event. It has the support of the Exchange District BIZ and the Residents of the Exchange District organization.

Dozens of businesses have committed to being open -- a distinct change from the norm, which sees Exchange shops and galleries closing at 6 p.m. on Fridays.

Volunteer organizers Sue Gordon and Karen Schulz are upbeat visual artists in their 50s who have studios in the Hammond Building at 63 Albert St. The only money they've received to promote First Fridays so far is a tiny grant of $150 from city councillor Harvey Smith.

They're using an image by artist Mike Carroll of a turned-on light switch as the logo for First Fridays. Schulz playfully altered a photo of a corporate billboard, visible from her studio window, into an imaginary billboard for First Fridays and posted it on the program's website.

The pair is putting the word out that First Fridays could involve any art form, including dance, theatre, music or comedy.

"We'd love to see businesses that don't have anything to do with the arts open up for First Fridays and hang art, have a poetry reading or a fashion show, or host a musician," says Gordon.

"Every business can be part of this -- every café, shop and restaurant," adds Schulz.

Gordon got the idea from First Fridays in Kansas City, Mo., a city with a metropolitan-area population of more than two million that she visits regularly with her husband. About five summers ago, they stumbled on a First Friday there in the arts district called the Crossroads.

"I was totally amazed at the number of people who were lining up to get into art openings, artists' studios, cafes, bars," Gordon remembers. "The whole area was packed."

The couple have returned several times. "Kansas City has made their arts district approachable by doing this," Gordon says.

First Fridays is a phenomenon that has swept the United States. Usually called gallery walks, hops or crawls, the free events are held in cultural districts of cities such as Philadelphia, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, Louisville and San Antonio.

In most cities, the program started modestly and has taken off so dramatically that many galleries now schedule show openings and artists' talks for the first Friday of the month, and lay out wine and cheese. Some cities offer free "art buses" or trolleys. Some publish maps of all the stops.

In Canada, Red Deer and Sarnia have launched First Fridays. Calgary does something similar with First Thursdays.

Winnipeg's Platform Centre for Photographic and Digital Arts in the Artspace building will be open Friday night with two new shows on view: the Eritrean Video Art Project and works by artists experimenting with pinhole photography. Its director-curator, J.J. Kegan McFadden, says he welcomes any initiative that attracts foot traffic at night for something other than "bar tourism."

Gordon and Schulz agree that bars and nightclubs are currently the neighbourhood's biggest draws on weekend nights, which leaves some Winnipeggers nervous about their safety. But the pair have always found the area safe. They emphasize that the galleries and businesses are concentrated within a few blocks, so they have faith that Winnipeggers will come out even in January weather.

The pair have gone door-to-door in the Exchange to talk up the program. In doing so, they have discovered art activity even they didn't know about.

For instance, across the street from their own building they found the Manitoba Institute of Sculptors and Artists, where an older sculptor who was in the middle of a project came to the door wearing a mask, covered with dust. "I thought they were defunct," Gordon says of the group.

Doug Shand, owner of Vintage Glory on Albert Street, says the Exchange is currently a "ghost town" for retailers after 6 p.m. But he saw during the recent Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival how profoundly a critical mass of people can affect business.

For the first time during the fringe, Albert and Arthur streets were closed to traffic between Bannatyne and McDermot avenues.

"My store was completely packed, every day for the whole fringe festival," says the vintage clothing dealer. "I sold probably 10 times the amount that I usually do. (The street closure) was the best thing that ever happened to the area."

Shand says only about six people came into Vintage Glory during the inaugural First Friday on July 2, but he's more than willing to commit to the program in hopes that it will catch on. He suggests that live music at the Cube in Old Market Square would help enliven First Fridays.

Any Exchange organization, artist or business that wants to participate can download and print a sign from the website www.firstfridayswinnipeg.org, put it out on a sandwich board, and open its doors.

Gordon and Schulz say they know it can be intimidating to walk into an art gallery alone. One of the reasons First Fridays has been so successful in other cities is that it surrounds newcomers with a lively crowd, so they feel more at ease.

"There's less risk when there's lots of people," says Schulz.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

ART PREVIEW

First Fridays in the Exchange

Friday from 5 to 9 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2010 D1

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