Picture Perfect 

First Fridays hopes Instagram can boost its profile.

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Lo-fi. Inkwell. Toaster. These photo filters add pop to anything, helping create a dreamy yesteryear, black and white or heavy contrast effects on Instagram, a picture-sharing service for the smart-phone set. Richmond's Broad Street Arts District hopes to cash in on the visual social media for its monthly First Fridays Art Walk.

The event is now overseen by the Downtown Neighborhood Association, which named Meghan Barbato as its new director last fall. One of her first steps has been teaming with Broad Street communications company INM United. It designed a minimalist website for the event that's best viewed on a phone. Its two main features are an interactive map and a live stream of visitor-submitted Instagrams. The photos feed onto a profile for anyone to view anytime.

Instagram boasts that it has 130 million users, a culture of contagious sharing, and no ads — not yet, at least. Along with portability, the atmosphere makes it an ideal service for municipalities that want to boost an area's walkability image. On June 17, for example, the Richmond kicked off the Stroll 'n Snap contest along the Liberty Trail, a six-mile historic route downtown. Call it crowd-sourced marketing.

It's also entirely free, Barbato emphasizes. Barbato's salary is supplied by Altria and Venture Richmond, and though $75,000 was budgeted by the city for arts district marketing in the 2013 fiscal year, she says, "I don't have a huge budget."

The arts district hopes that it can use creative marketing to turn a solid monthly event into traffic — and income — on other days of the week.

Scott Garnett, co-owner of Lift Café and a board member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, says more tech surprises are in the works. The West Cary Group is looking to fund an app that would record the walks of such luminaries as Mayor Jones, Shaka Smart, and chef Jason Alley so that First Fridays visitors could recreate them. There's also an information shop planned on Broad that will offer consultations to new businesses that want to move into the arts district.

Meanwhile, Barbato is going grass-roots, aiming to attract people from outside downtown. She wants to enhance the multigenerational vibe too, and that's where a breakdown of those huge user numbers becomes important.

According to a recent Pew Research study, Instagram experiences the sharpest participation drop-off in users after they're 29 compared to other social networks. It's also more popular among minorities and urban residents, not the affluent on the outskirts. The service is notorious for "selfies" (self-portraits) and pictures of food, and for its popularity among teenagers. Barbato doesn't seem worried. "I'm not exercising criticism, just curating the pictures that come in, looking out for offensive stuff," she says. "What you see is everything from a cappuccino to a $5,000 piece of art."

There are no hard numbers for First Fridays Art Walk attendance or indicators of its economic impact, such as sales-tax data. 1708 Gallery keeps a monthly record of its visitors, though technically the district stretches from Broad and Belvedere streets, soon to play host to VCU's Institute of Contemporary Art, to the State Capitol.

Those boundaries were a sticking point for the former First Fridays director, Christina Newton. She'd protested that a large district would dilute identity and negatively affect walkability by sending visitors back into the comfort zones of their cars. Before stepping down, Newton counted an average of 6,000 monthly visitors.

"The viability of our event is not dependent on some mythical group to prop us up," Barbato says in an email. "First Fridays is over a decade old, and doing well under its own momentum." She also added that, "in the wider view, a successful event requires our neighborhood businesses to be successful too, and I'm not ignoring that aspect of the equation." S

The First Fridays profile can be found at instagram.com/rvafirstfridays.

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