First Friday finds its stride

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On the first Friday of every new month, there’s a party going on in Santa Cruz. But it’s the kind of party with no central focus point. Its venue is a giant footprint that covers most of downtown and well beyond. And every month, the party gets a little bigger.
It’s called the First Friday Art Tour, and today, it celebrates its fifth anniversary of uniting the various strands of the Santa Cruz visual arts community into one showcase evening. From galleries to coffeehouses to the stately Museum of Art and History, the First Friday tour is an opportunity to meet a group of curious visitors who they may always see otherwise.
“Every (First) Friday, we’ll hear it,” said T. Mike Walker, the board president of the Santa Cruz Art League. “People will come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve never been here before. This is pretty cool.’”
The tour encompasses several businesses downtown, including the Dead Cow and the Michaelangelo galleries on River Street, north of downtown, to the Mill Gallery close to the beach on Front Street. It goes from the Santa Cruz Art League on the Eastside to the Swift Street Courtyard on the far Westside. The idea is to go from place to place, enjoy the provided refreshments and check out the work of a wide variety of local painters, photographes, printmakers and sculptors.
The tour started as a self-guided walking tour, morphed into a guided walking tour, and then, as venues became more spread out, a bus was enlisted to shuttle art lovers from show to show. Now, the bus is temporarily out of comission while tour coordinators figure out new and creative ways to finance it. But, five years in, the First Friday tour has established itself as a known entity among both locals and out-of-towners looking for a good way to experience a cross section of the Santa Cruz creative community.
Kirby Scudder of the Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Arts, with his then-partner Chip (now director of the Downtown Association), began the tour on a modest scale in the spring of 2004.
“My thinking was, let’s do it on a Friday,” said Scudder who still oversees the tour. “That way, you get lots of people coming over the hill for the weekend, looking for things to do.”
The two were running the ? Gallery on Church Street at the time, and found a few takers for that first First Friday including Lulu Carpenter’s, the Felix Kulpa Gallery and the L.H. Selman gallery of glass art. The tour grew to include coffeehouses like Caffe Pergolesi, restaurants such as Gabrielle’s, even the now-defunct Thomas Kinkade Gallery, a point of contention for some in the arts community.
“We realized about a year and a half into it,” said Scudder, “that people were confused about the self-guided aspect of it.”
So, Scudder began leading the tour, a pied-piper figure going from show to show with a crowd in tow. That first guided tour included five people, but expanded to 60 people in the next couple of months. The Attic, also now defunct, served as the command center and central meeting place for the tour. Then came the bus, which drove people from spot to spot.
Walker of the Art League said that his group had always applauded the art tour, but it didn’t become an active participant in it until after he was elevated to board president. “Because we were kind of peripheral to downtown, we didn’t always see ourselves as part of that community. But eventually, we did.”
The Art League, the community’s oldest organization (it celebrates its 90th anniversary in May), is housed on the far side of Ocean Street on Broadway. The Art Tour, said Walker, gave the SCAL an opportunity to be part of the downtown scene, though geographically, it was on the far edge of downtown.
“I’ve always been an advocate that we need to expand those edges,” he said. “We’re only three blocks away. People could walk to the Art League.”
The First Friday Art Tour is not finished with its ideas for expansion, said Scudder. He’d like to see businesses on the Santa Cruz Wharf brought into it as well and cover as much as Santa Cruz as possible.
“It’s made people come together in the arts community, and that’s a good thing. I think it’s come into its maturity now and we can depend on a strong word-of-mouth. And all the galleries, they’re now relying on First Fridays to draw a crowd to their galleries. And it’s doing it.”

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