There’d been art openings and galleries along Broad for years, and even Friday monthly openings — 1708 Gallery and artspace were among the first to move there from their Shockoe origins after rent got too high. They joined TheatreIV, which revived the Empire Theatre (it turns a century old in 2011).
It came out of an artspace committee where Christina Newton was then executive director to place the arts and cultural venues under a collective umbrella and call it First Fridays. This wasn’t a new idea, other towns did them, but Richmond’s event in due time enlivened what was considered a dead zone. True, sections of Broad on the verge of renewal were stopped in their tracks by the Current Economic Problem, and there’s much more to be done. For instance, setting up a downtown arts district that should’ve gotten accomplished years ago. But we got too distracted by squabbles about ballpark locations and digging big holes.
In 1991, Austin, Texas, proclaimed itself “Live Music Capital of the World" (a musician’s idea, by the way) and set out to do just that. Why Richmond cannot choose to make a similar declaration about being something like the “Cultural Capital of the South” is, frankly, beyond me.
One of the ways you can judge how First Fridays altered downtown is to look at the restaurants and businesses that have sprung up as it took hold, from Comfort (once the Blue Bottle) to Tarrant’s (once Three Mile Gallery, and before that, a drugstore where the regulars styled themselves as The Gutter Club) and The Belvidere. And that’s just a sampling. Retail has also come along, in fits and starts (anchored by stalwart Metro Sound), as have residential spaces above the old storefronts.
You take First Friday out of that equation, and most of those places wouldn’t have had a sparking reason to exist at this place and time.
The success has caused some galleries to hold Thursday previews due to the Friday crowds. The police posted on traffic duty are busy making sure nobody gets harmed at the intersections. And street-corner preachers inveigh against the evils of wine and cheese.
For the 10th anniversary, there were several special acts, including the band Rattlemouth. There I witnessed a woman dancing to a trance-style piece — on crutches.
First Friday represents an effort to redefine downtown and its cultural life. Sometimes Richmond's moves may seem uncoordinated and clumsy, but give us a good beat, and we’ll eventually dance to it. The musicians and the conductor aren’t in government, but on the street, in the galleries, coffee shops and boutiques. There’ve been some economic-related shakeups, but by and large, the old-timers are there, and newcomers are still arriving in a downtown written off a decade ago.