Old Town’s First Friday celebrates 30 years, with a nod to the past and a look to the future

To the group of bohemians who first settled in the deserted warehouses of the old city in the 1970s – who lived in leaky lofts without heating and danced in the streets, who planted trees on the sidewalks and hung works of art in the windows of the factories, who met for breakfast in a restaurant called the Continental which was not yet owned by a man named Starr – everything seemed so beautiful, as if a neighborhood had been reborn through art .

So soon they invited others to join the party for an art walk – and called it First Friday. The fledgling galleries, boutiques and showrooms opened their doors in the evenings for events and exhibitions. Wine was known to flow.

“It was inviting people who might not know the art to come in — and embrace it and share it with them,” said Michael Biello, co-owner of Biello Martin Studio. “And it was an opening for artists to come in and see what was possible as a community.”

Today, this monthly celebration that gave voice and space to Philadelphia’s vibrant arts scene – and helped transform the city’s most historic neighborhood into a thriving, nationally known creative district, celebrates his 30th birthday.

And with what else but a party.

This Friday night, to mark the anniversary – last year was actually the 30th, but hey, COVID – the Old Town neighborhood will show a mini-documentary about the history of First Fridays outside Betsy Ross’ house. The 10-minute short – produced by Old Town-based All That’s Good Productions, and shown on a loop – features longtime gallerists and newer artists in the neighborhood telling the story of Fridays before.

How artists — many of whom were fleeing a freeway project on South Street — brought Old City back to life, an abandoned manufacturing landscape with just 800 residents in 1980. (Now there are 6,900.)

“We were kind of the only people in the neighborhood, which was beautiful and weird,” said Biello, who opened Biello Martin with his life partner, Dan Martin, in 1978. “As an artist, he there is an outdoor part, where you always try to be part of a community… and the old town has become a place that has been created through artists.

The monthly walks in the galleries quickly took on a particular energy.

“We had no idea this was going to be this monster event,” said Rick Snyderman, who along with his wife, Ruth Snyderman, operated the Snyderman-Works Galleries for 50 years before closing in 2017, and offered the idea for First Fridays at the Old Town Arts Association in 1991. “It created a personality for the neighborhood and the infrastructure that turned out to be an economic driver.”

Heidi Nivling, who has operated Larry Becker Contemporary Art with her husband, Larry Becker, since 1984: “It helped let the world know there was this serious art in Philadelphia – and they would find these treasures and keep coming back. .”

First Fridays have evolved and gone through the ups and downs and times of debauchery in Old Town nightclubs, but still inspired.

“It was like back then, we were seeing the art that we weren’t introduced to in art school,” said Lawren Alice, who, along with her partner, Noah Musher, founded the gallery. and the Arch Enemy Arts store in 2012.

And while First Fridays never really stopped during COVID — gallery owners hosted screenings online — they’ve now survived a pandemic.

“This is an opportunity to welcome everyone back,” said Job Itzkowitz, executive director of the Old Town district. He said Friday’s event will include the most galleries and businesses since pandemic restrictions eased.

Those who return will discover a somewhat modified old town.

Before the pandemic — amid a residential boom that cost some longtime galleries — Old City had an 11% vacancy rate, Itzkowitz said. This number nearly doubled to 20% during the pandemic. But a new life is coming again.

Since 2021, 42 new businesses have opened in the district.

“There’s definitely traction and energy in Old Town,” Itzkowitz said.

Critically, in a district that has historically lacked diversity, Itzkowitz said seven of those new businesses were owned by people of color. A cause for celebration in its own right, Old City once again has a black-owned gallery.

(Florcy Morrisset took her famous Vivant gallery online in 2012, and the Philly Art Collective Gallery closed during the pandemic.)

“I don’t know if Old City would have even been a possibility for me without the pandemic,” said Miquon Brinkley, 38, who opened the Thinker Makers Society in 2021 as a platform for local artists of color. and which on Friday will host “Being Black While Baroque” – a photographic showcase featuring the essence of black in the Baroque style.

“The owners were taking meetings that they wouldn’t normally do with people who looked like me. They were much more receptive when people weren’t paying rent.

As a young artist growing up in Philadelphia, he too found inspiration in First Fridays, often discovering art created by black artists among galleries, but rarely encountering black ownership. Thirty years is something to celebrate, he says. But it is also an opportunity to “redefine and rethink art”.

“We can absolutely rethink who these artists are – and what this art is,” he said.

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