“100 First Fridays” Mixed Media on Panel

The First Friday art tour has transformed the Santa Cruz arts scene — that didn’t happen by accident

The epiphany that saved First Friday Santa Cruz came one morning in 2006.The day before, a dispirited Kirby Scudder, the tireless Santa Cruz artist who co-founded the walking art tour a couple of years earlier, told his partner in the venture, the single-named Chip, that it was time to quit. It was a ton of work organizing the event, and at the time very few people were even paying much attention.

“I said, Chip, this isn’t working,'” remembered Scudder. “Let’s not do it anymore. What’s the loss?'”

The next morning, though, the defeatism had lifted. “I woke up and I knew exactly what to do. We were doing it all wrong.”

At that point, First Friday was a self-guided art tour of downtown art spaces that took place the first Friday of each month. Not many people knew about it. Retailers were reluctant to participate. And many of those who did try it out were wondering what the point of it was.

Scudder decided that morning that the self-guided tour wasn’t working. He was going to have to serve as a guide, leading crowds from one venue to another to talk about the art.

So the next month, Scudder waited at the now-defunct gallery/restaurant the Attic on Pacific Avenue, waiting to lead a tour for a crowd he wasn’t even sure would show up.

“I kept thinking, Oh God, what if nobody shows up?’ But eventually, people start to trickle in, and they don’t really know what they’re looking for, certainly not this weird guy in a trucker hat.”

That first guided tour attracted a grand total of 10 people. But the next month, that number doubled. And pretty soon, Scudder found himself herding 50 or more giggling, chattering people through the streets of Santa Cruz. The art part of it was fun, yes. But in that moment, First Friday became a social event, an excuse for friends to get together and engage in a mini-adventure.

These days, First Friday is a cultural phenomenon that lures thousands of people every month to downtown Santa Cruz. It has, in fact, expanded beyond downtown, to the Westside, to Midtown, even to Capitola Village. It now includes more than 50 venues. What’s more, it has created a distinctly festive atmosphere in the participating venues across the county, some of which are jammed with partying people, all in service to connecting local visual artists with potential audiences.

On April 6, First Friday hits a milestone. It will be the 100th event since its beginnings eight years ago. And the story of how it came about illustrates that the First Friday local revelers know today was not inevitable.

First Friday has now developed its own momentum even though Scudder no longer leads guided tours, even though the two-year period in which a popular shuttle bus became the tour’s most high-profile icon has come and gone.

It used to be that the event would experience seasonal swings, more visitors in the warm months than the winter months. No more. Now, organizations that have nothing directly to do with First Friday are holding their events on that day to take advantage of the crowds and the general sense of adventure that pervades the town. First Friday has matured.

The story of how FF became what it is begins in the fall of 2003 when Scudder first arrived in Santa Cruz. He was a cheeky visual artist who knew no one in town but was perplexed why, given all the artists in Santa Cruz County, there was almost no place to show art.

He talked the city redevelopment agency into letting him hang his art in the then-empty storefront where Urban Outfitters now is, taking advantage of the foot traffic from the nearby Cinema 9 to sell 35 paintings of Santa Cruz. Chip, now the executive director of the Downtown Association, was doing something similar in the old Cat ‘n’ Canary building at Pacific and Cathcart, but was having far less success at it.

“This guy comes into town from wherever,” he said, “and he’s doing these paintings with an incredible sense of place — he doesn’t know the community — and he’s capturing Santa Cruz better than anyone and selling it? Who the hell is this guy?”

 The two men become not only fast friends but kindred souls. They both share a sense of drive and community service and a love of arts, not to mention a proclivity to “do” something. Soon, they are being referred to as a single entity with the Brangelina-like nickname “Chirby.”

Their plan was to convert more empty storefronts in the downtown into makeshift art galleries. And that plan came to fruition when the city and then-mayor Emily Reilly — Chirby’s most stalwart official supporter — gave them a few months’ funding to prove that there was a market for art downtown. They opened the ? Gallery — known as the “Question Mark” gallery — on Pacific Avenue.

“We worked our butts off spreading the word,” Scudder said. “And our first opening. I mean, it was like we were opening Studio 54 or something. It was insane. We featured 18 artists and you couldn’t get in or out of there. It was packed.”

When the gallery closed four months later, Chip and Scudder approached other property managers to let them open galleries in their unrented spaces and the two operated as guerrilla gallery managers for a while. It was then when the idea of a monthly art tour came about.

There was, at first, very little enthusiasm for the idea. “There was a lot of cynicism about what could and could not happen in Santa Cruz with the arts scene,” Scudder said. “We would hear that’s been tried, blah, blah, blah.’ But we’re just crazy. We were adamant we were going to do this thing.”

Larry Selman, who had a gallery where he displayed his glass art, was an early adopter and, for a while, the most dependable retailer on the tour. It was Selman who also helped to print the tour’s walking map.

Still, the tour didn’t really catch on until Scudder decided to lead the crowds to the various venues, most of which were unconventional places to show art. “I remember Kirby leading a group over the bridge to see our exhibit,” said Mary Ann Carson of the Santa Cruz County Bank, which was on the far side of the Soquel Avenue Bridge at that time.

The evolution of the tour took another giant leap forward when Scudder began to rent a bus to shuttle the crowds around for the tour. At that time, the Tannery Arts Center was under construction and Scudder had appropriated a part of the old Salz Tannery to establish the Dead Cow Gallery. And on the south end of downtown, close to the ocean, the Mill Gallery also opened, giving the tour two bookends about three miles apart.

“The bus changed my relationship to the event,” Scudder said. “Now I had to be on the bus the whole time. It got to the point where people are just laughing their asses off, having a great time. The experience of the bus alone was just crazy.”

“People would have birthday parties on the bus,” Chip said. “After the bus, we saw a huge spike in attendance. People were now bringing their friends and those friends were bringing other people.”

The bus eventually became an unsustainable drain financially. But by the time the tour discontinued bus service, First Friday had found its legs.

With the tour now spreading from outside the downtown — the regularly large crowds at the R. Blitzer Gallery in the hard-to-find back entrance to the old Wrigley building on the far west end of Santa Cruz speaks to the tour’s popularity — Scudder was ready to hand off the running of the event to someone else. And there to help him out was his old partner Chip.

In 2010, Chip took over as the director of First Friday and he and his partner/spouse Abra Allan have expanded the event even further. “First Friday is all about promoting the artists,” said Chip, “not the arts. Our biggest struggle is to remind people that this is an event to, first and foremost, celebrate the artists. Scudder has now assumed the role that Chip had for years, the consultant called for advice from time to time.

“I’m amazed at the people involved in this thing,” he said. “Most of the people, their core business is not art. For them, from month to month to go to all that extra effort to support artists, I mean, you have to give them a hand. In New York and San Francisco, you go from gallery to gallery to gallery.”

“Here, we have 50 galleries and — what? — two, three galleries,” added Chip. “Coffee shops, the bank, the Sock Shop, the [sex-toy] shops, the psychedelic shops, the bike shops. Every month, we’re seeing more and more fresh faces not linked to the established art scene here. It’s really exciting.”

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