A Refocused First Fridays

On October First Fridays art lovers perused the “All Colors” exhibit at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Call it a Low-Key, but Convivial Gathering – With Little Resemblance to the High-Octane “Festival” it was Just a Few Months Ago

Kansas City suffered a shockingly violent summer. As July slid into August, the city recorded nine murders in fourteen days. One of those victims was 25-year-old Erin Langhofer.

On Aug. 2, Erin attended First Fridays in the Crossroads Arts District. As she stood in line at a food truck near 18th and Main streets, a fight broke out down the street. Shots were fired. A stray bullet struck and killed her.

In the tragedy’s aftermath, the future of First Fridays was closely scrutinized and hotly debated. What started nearly 20 years ago as a small neighborhood art crawl had grown into an increasingly chaotic carnival drawing upwards of 10,000 visitors during summer months. One observer described it as “a kind of monster — hard to get back in the cage.”

As September First Fridays approached, the Crossroads Association announced that the event would continue — but with tighter restrictions on food trucks and pop-up vendors, and without closing the streets. In other words, an evening with art once again as its focus.

“We owed it to this girl’s family,” Stephanie Leedy, co-owner of the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center says emphatically. “We needed to make some drastic changes.”

Over the last few years, Leedy watched as her neighborhood wrestled with issues of crowd control and public safety. So many moving parts that were unimaginable when all this started. “The Crossroads Association was trying their best, but it was like whack-a-mole,” she sighs.

Erin Woodworth (photo by Stacey Schmitz)

A Victim of its Own Success

In a way, First Fridays was a victim of its own success, particularly when warmer weather made the old warehouse district a prime place to see and be seen. A giant street party complete with underage drinking and, over time, fewer and fewer links to the art that inspired it.

Erin Woodworth, Stephanie’s daughter and gallery director at the Art Center, wishes more revelers had a better grasp of the event’s origins and what it takes to host such a throng. “People are disappointed when I tell them we close at 9 p.m., and I say, ‘but you can come back tomorrow. We’re not just open three hours a week!’”

In fact, the brick and mortar operations that helped breathe life back into the area are among those most saddened by First Fridays’ evolution. Peregrine Honig, an artist and proprietor of Birdies, sums the scene up this way: “It had gone from a shift that my staff all wanted to work to one that people were pleading with me not to.”

Peregrine Honig (photo by Jim Barcus)

The reasons were many. Vendors selling cheap sunglasses and cell phone cases set up tables that blocked her doorway. Bored teenagers did the things bored teenagers do. And despite all the foot traffic, First Fridays is not, she says, a night that generates large revenues. In fact, Honig describes the continuing participation of artists, galleries and shopkeepers in the Crossroads as a “public service” that’s been largely taken for granted by the rest of the city.

Sherry Leedy concurs. “It’s the tail wagging the dog,” she laments. “Too many people coming down here made others decide to stay away.”

To that end, her gallery, Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, moved its openings to Thursday nights, so patrons can preview a new exhibition in relative peace. She’s still open on First Fridays but wants to make it clear that “my intention was always to support artists. That’s the audience I care about, the people who want to see art.”

A few blocks away, the Haw Contemporary gallery doesn’t even open its doors on First Fridays. Since Bill Haw, Jr. moved in next to Michael Smith’s new restaurant, Farina, in early 2018, he’s only done it once. His conclusion? The payoff from mixing potential purchasers and “people who only came in to use the restroom was not worth the angst.”

The sidewalks along Baltimore Avenue, epicenter of First Fridays, were far from full during the October event, but they did carry a steady stream of students, family groups and couples. (photo by Jim Barcus)

What Artists Think

Still, not everyone is comfortable with arbitrarily dialing down the Arts District’s energy level. Seventeen years ago, John O’Brien was among those who helped set the First Fridays phenomenon in motion. As owner of the Dolphin Gallery at that time, O’Brien preached (and still does) “the power of exposing as many people as possible to art.” He worries that “when you take away something that’s grown organically, chances are it will come back differently.”

It’s an opinion he shares with the man everyone agrees brought art and artists to the Crossroads in the first place, Jim Leedy. “My father loves seeing big crowds,” Stephanie Leedy says with a chuckle. “But he’s not down here all the time to see what it had really turned into.”

Something virtually everyone does agree on is that higher rents keep pushing working artists out of the Crossroads. The Leedy-Voulkos remains an exception. On its second floor, a group of five artists calling themselves A Studio Above share a workspace that’s open to First Fridays visitors. As they prepared for the October iteration, painters Bill Moore and Jackie Warren reflected on how the event benefits them. In a word — exposure.

“You look around and there’s 30, 40, 50 people hanging around up here,” Moore beams. “It’s a great feeling.” He sees First Fridays less as a time for sales and more as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for commissions that come in later.

Warren does, too. She particularly likes the intimacy of one-on-one conversations that pop up with people making the rounds. When First Fridays’ new format debuted in September, “it seemed like everybody who came in really wanted to look at art and talk about it,” she recalls. “It was really nice.”

As October First Fridays began to unfold, late afternoon showers gave way to an autumnally perfect evening. While sidewalks were far from full, they did carry a steady stream of art students, family groups and doting couples, even some football fans in town for the Chiefs game. They listened to an artist talk in the Blue Gallery, perused the Weinberger and the Bauer, caught a busker and browsed some of the shops. A few checked out the vendors tucked into the newly coined Art Alleys. Call it a low key, but convivial gathering — with little resemblance to the high-octane “festival” it was just a few months ago.

And Peregrine Honig, for one, is fine with that. “If you want to walk around and drink beer, maybe buy some mass-produced tie dye that was made in another country, there are lots of places to do that,” she points out. “But I know how hard my neighbors work to make high-quality art. If you want to celebrate great art and music, then come to First Fridays.”

Randy Mason

Randy Mason is best known for his work in public television, but he’s also covered Kansas City arts and artists in print and on the radio for more than three decades.

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