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Old City’s First Friday turns 30, with a nod to the past and a look to the future

That monthly celebration that gave voice and place to Philadelphia’s vibrant art scene and helped transform the city’s most historic neighborhood into a thriving creative district is turning 30.

On the First Friday of every month, Old City gallery owners open their doors for a lively evening of new exhibitions and free refreshments.
On the First Friday of every month, Old City gallery owners open their doors for a lively evening of new exhibitions and free refreshments.Read moreJ. SMITH / Visit Philadelphia

To the band of bohemians who first settled into Old City’s deserted warehouses in the 1970s — who lived in leaky lofts without heat and danced in the streets, who planted trees on the sidewalks and hung art in factory windows, who met for breakfast at a diner called the Continental that was not yet owned by a man named Starr — it all felt so beautiful, as if a neighborhood had been reborn through art.

So, soon they invited others to join the party for an arts stroll — and called it First Friday. The fledgling galleries, boutiques, and showrooms opened their doors in the evening for events and exhibits. Wine was known to flow.

“It was inviting people that might not know about art to come in — and to embrace them and share it with them,” said Michael Biello, co-owner of Biello Martin Studio. “And it was an opening for artists to come in and see what was possible as a community.”

Now, that monthly celebration that gave voice and place to Philadelphia’s vibrant art scene — and helped transform the city’s most historic neighborhood into a thriving, and nationally known, creative district, is turning 30.

And with what else, but a party.

This Friday night, to mark the anniversary — last year was actually the 30th, but, well, COVID — the Old City District will be showing a mini-documentary on the history of First Fridays outside the Betsy Ross house. The 10-minute short — produced by the Old City-based All That’s Good Productions and screening on a loop — features longtime gallery owners and artists newer to the neighborhood, who tell the story of the Fridays that came before.

How artists — many fleeing a proposed expressway on South Street — brought new life to Old City, an abandoned manufacturing landscape with only 800 residents in 1980. (Now there’s 6,900.)

“We were kind of the only people in the neighborhood, which was beautiful and freaky,” said Biello, who opened Biello Martin, with his life partner, Dan Martin, in 1978. “Being an artist, there’s an outsider part of it, where you’re always trying to be part of a community... and Old City just became a place that created itself through the artists.”

The monthly gallery walks quickly took on a special energy of their own.

“We had no idea that it was going to be this monster event,” said Rick Snyderman, who, with his wife, Ruth Snyderman, operated Snyderman-Works Galleries for 50 years before closing in 2017, and proposed the idea of First Fridays to the Old City Arts Association in 1991. “It created a personality for the district and infrastructure that proved to be an economic generator.”

Added Heidi Nivling, who has operated Larry Becker Contemporary Art with her husband, Larry Becker, since 1984: “It helped to let the world know that there was this serious art going on in Philadelphia — and they would discover these treasures and keep coming back.”

First Fridays evolved and endured through ups and down and bawdy nightclub times in Old City, but always inspired.

“It felt like back then, we were seeing the art that wasn’t introduced to us in art school,” said Lawren Alice, who, with her partner, Noah Musher, founded Arch Enemy Arts gallery and boutique in 2012.

And though First Fridays never actually stopped during COVID — gallery owners held online showings — they have now outlasted a pandemic.

“It’s an opportunity to welcome everyone back,” said Job Itzkowitz, executive director of the Old City District. He said Friday’s event will include the most galleries and businesses since pandemic restrictions have eased.

Those who are returning will discover a somewhat changed Old City.

Before the pandemic — amid a residential boom that priced out some longtime galleries — Old City had a vacancy rate of 11%, Itzkowitz said. That number nearly doubled to 20% during the pandemic. But new life is once again arriving.

Since 2021, 42 new businesses have opened up in the neighborhood.

“There is definitely some traction and energy in Old City,” Itzkowitz said.

Critically, in a district that has historically lacked diversity, Itzkowitz said 15 of those new businesses are owned by people of color. A cause for celebration all its own, Old City once again has a Black-owned gallery.

(Florcy Morrisset moved her acclaimed Vivant gallery online in 2012 and Philly Art Collective Gallery shuttered during the pandemic.)

“I don’t know if Old City would have even been a possibility for me if it weren’t for the pandemic,” said Miquon Brinkley, 38, who opened Thinker Makers Society in 2021 as a platform for local artists of color, and which Friday will host “Being Black While Baroque” — a photography showcase featuring Black essence in baroque style.

“Landlords were taking meetings that they normally wouldn’t with people who looked like myself. They were a lot more receptive when people weren’t paying rent.”

As a young artist growing up in Philly, he too found inspiration in First Fridays, often experiencing art created by Black artists among the galleries, but rarely encountering Black ownership. Thirty years is something to celebrate, he said. But it’s also a chance to “redefine and rethink art.”

“We can absolutely rethink who those artists are — and what that art is,” he said.

This article has been updated to reflect a higher number of businesses now owned by people of color in Old City. All data was provided by the Old City District.