Why is one of Philadelphia’s time honored arts traditions important to me as an artist, arts administration student, and as a human?
by Meg Wolensky
Today is First Friday – an event which, as the name implies, takes place every first Friday of the month, rain or shine, year-round, from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM.
Since 1991, Old City district’s First Friday represents unique cultural event in Philadelphia and one of the city’s most enticing casual evening events and best of all, it’s FREE. Unless, of course, you’re looking to buy – in which case there is a massive range of items which you could take home with you. For the $10-$20 crowd, you could have your portrait drawn by a five year old while his parents hand him markers or a painting by a street vendor who is probably enrolled at one of the local art schools. If you’re looking to spend over $1000 and “student loan repayment” isn’t a phrase you recognize, you could have a painting or sculpture from any number of galleries in the area. Either way, there’s no pressure to take out your wallet during First Friday because there is a welcoming informality that promotes curiosity and proves to be one of the most attractive qualities of the event.
My introduction to First Friday took place during my first week of college at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I was 18 years old on a packed Subway with roommates I hardly knew. I couldn’t tell if my nervous excitement was coming from the prospect of meeting other artists or because I wasn’t entirely sure I’d remembered to put my keys in bag before we left. One thing I did know was that I had never been to Philadelphia’s Old City district and I was very anxious about navigating the Market Frankford Line. Thankfully, my navigational skills are far less challenged now and I am capable of getting most anywhere, (barring all times when the Pope is visiting.) Five stops later I arrived in the middle of an arts experience I’d never had before.
I was coming directly from my first week of classes at PAFA, an institution which prides itself on adherence to the academic tradition of art and its place in the history of Philadelphia’s art scene. I generally love to be in any and all social settings which revolve around the arts, so I was very pleased to find a perfect combination of my interests and education in Old City. There was a small band playing while a man in wearing a giant rat head and red velvet vest danced around crowds of onlookers. There were street vendors selling everything from finely articulated portraits to homemade jewelry and small succulent plant arrangements. Galleries throughout Old City opened their doors to the public, inviting everyone to see current exhibitions in a casual atmosphere. Gallery owners spoke with us about curatorial decisions openly while artists discussed concepts and practice. I exchanged many business cards and promised to check out at least fifty websites. Art students were everywhere, many of them beginning to court the galleries and see where their work might meet the right clientele. First Friday appeared to be a lively event where people from all over the city came in to enjoy art and each other’s company. When I got back on the subway that night, I was no longer nervous because I knew I’d built a small but crucial corner of the network I’m still working to build today.
Officially established in 1991, Old City Arts Association has organized and represented the area as a primary arts and culture hub in Philadelphia. Old City is perfectly poised to deliver a point of access to a range of art for many kinds of audiences. A short walk from center city hotels, landmarks, and historic sites, The Old City neighborhood is an easily accessible and manageable destination to be seen during a brief walking tour. At the same time, there’s always something new to see that draws audiences time and time again. First Friday regularly draws crowds of window shoppers as well as serious collectors and curators.