Seven-Year Itch 

click to enlarge news41_first_fridays_100.jpg

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Christina Newton munches on a tuna melt and contemplates the future of First Fridays.

It's her job. October marks the opening of the Broad Street art walk's seventh formal season, and Curated Culture, the nonproft Newton directs, is charged with the fundraising and coordination of an event widely considered a commercial success.

While city-funded downtown projects such as the Greater Richmond Convention Center, the Richmond Coliseum, 6th Street Marketplace and CenterStage have bobbed along in a sea of public dollars, one thing is clear: Even without the financial support of the city, First Fridays is the only thing that has reliably drawn people back to Broad Street. It's only 12 days a year, but it's been a steady magnet for foot traffic.

After seven years, galleries and new businesses are itching to grow beyond the start-and-stop rhythm of one-night-a-month crowds. But building a consistent customer base on Broad requires additional investment from developers, as well as the city.

Amid the growth spurt, Newton and the participating galleries are reassessing Curated Culture's role. For Newton, the challenge has a simple solution. If the event is going to expand significantly, Curated Culture needs more money.

"What we're doing has had a huge impact on downtown, and we're not going to survive without money from the city," Newton says.

Estimates on attendance vary, but they suggest the event consistently draws between 2,000 and 4,000 people to the downtown galleries once a month. New businesses have popped up along the route -- restaurants such as Tarrant's, which took the name of the vacant drugstore where it opened last fall.

Tarrant's sits at Broad and Foushee, seven blocks down from the construction site where the Carpenter Center is being renovated and CenterStage will be built, projects some expect will ultimately cost the city about $50 million.

When the idea for First Fridays was first floated, there weren't many takers. As director of the gallery Artspace in 2003, Newton says she approached the Arts Council, the major arts and culture funding organization in the city, as well as City Celebrations, the organization that used to run the Easter Parade and other city events and has since been absorbed by Venture Richmond. She, along with a handful of other gallery owners, wanted to start an arts walk and needed support.

When neither group bit, Newton went it alone. She left Artspace to establish Curated Culture and started raising money for the walk. It's a shoestring budget. In fiscal 2006-07, for example, Newton raised and spent $68,000 to produce First Fridays taking home $15,000 in salary. The nonprofit subsists on membership dues of $200 apiece from galleries and businesses on the walk, along with corporate grants from Philip Morris, Ukrop's Super Markets and First Market Bank.

Newton's asking for $15,000 from the city for next year's series and hopes to raise a total of $100,000 by year's end.

"One of our problems is that because we're such a small organization," she says, "[there's] been our own lack of resources, but also a lack of knowledge about how you pursue funding from the city."

Many people assume First Fridays runs on city dollars already, says Joseph Papa, a Curated Culture board member and fundraiser for the Library of Virginia. "It's a huge misconception," he says.

The program has clearly provided an economic spark, he says:   "In these seven years we've seen how many restaurants pop up here? How many galleries? How many retail spots? People are increasingly less scared to come downtown because their neighbors are coming downtown."

As for Curated Culture's role, Papa says someone must take care of the Web site, the permits and "answer calls about where to park for the 5,000 people that are coming from the West End and South Side."

Many new business owners say First Fridays factored into their decision to locate downtown. Rudy Lopez, co-owner of Henry, a T-shirt and sneaker boutique that opened in April, says the event was key.   "If it wasn't for First Fridays, we wouldn't have come down here," he says of the foot traffic and the neighborhood's evolution with the arts scene.

Even in the window of Jackson Hewitt tax services down the block, a sign in the window reads: "Join us for First Fridays. Spin our wheel for giveaways and discounts."

Now that First Fridays has conquered the first hurdle of establishing itself as a brand, some people worry that it may become a victim of its own success. For one, the real estate on Broad may start looking more attractive to bigger businesses.

"Once you lose the unique businesses and arts organizations," Newton says, "you've lost the reason people come down here."

She says she'd like to focus on finding ways to protect the people who pioneered the event, such as negotiating an arts-district designation or coaxing tax breaks from the city to allow gallery owners to finance their own work and living spaces.

But not everyone agrees on how to get there.

Travis Fullerton, chairman of the board of 1708 Gallery, one of the oldest nonprofit galleries on the walk, says he's not looking to the city for direct funding, but rather for improved city services.

"I think Christina and Curated Culture have done a lot to promote First Fridays from a marketing perspective and getting the word out there," Fullerton says. "It's helpful to have that support that she provides and it would be helpful to have support from the city. There's a lot of blight mixed in with the galleries. [This spring] there was a building that burned down two doors down from us" on the 300 block of West Broad.

Kathy Emerson, who used to run the city-owned 17th Street Farmers' Market in Shockoe Bottom and now runs Quirk, a for-profit gallery with a focus on crafts, talks even more positively about the event's ability to exist in a vacuum.

"It is going to grow with or without the [city] funding. It is an organic experience that grows on its own," Emerson says. "If it were me and I were managing it, I wouldn't want to have to answer to the city, especially considering the current administration."

Emerson and others have started looking beyond Curated Culture and begun coordinating with neighborhood organizations to improve street lighting, trash pickup and parking, not to mention requesting more police presence.

Amanda Robinson Khodabandeh, executive director of Gallery5, agrees that the focus should be on services, not direct city funds. "It's about the streets," she says, "the lighting, the security to ensure the integrity of downtown."

"Some people would argue that First Fridays would continue without our organization," Newton says, though she warns "nothing cooperative would happen. There would be no point person, there would be no marketing, no cohesion to the project without someone taking the lead."

First Fridays may run on its own momentum, and the next level may be a big step up. But can it save Broad Street in a way that city-funded projects haven't? The event's grassroots pedigree just might be the ingredient that makes the difference.

"There's got to be a way of nurturing what's already there,"  Newton says, who's doing a bit of nurturing at Tarrant's, where she packs up the remainder of her tuna sandwich before stepping back out onto the reality of Broad Street.S

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