For the last 11 years, I’ve run a blog about Philly street art and public art, which is why my next sentence is going to sound a little odd: Until I found First Fridays, I never really felt like the arts were for me.
I grew up in Fishtown in the late 1980s and ‘90s, just a few neighborhoods north of Old City. I went to both Catholic and public schools, and neither offered much of an arts education. I’m honestly not even sure I ever went to one of our city’s major museums as a kid, unless you count the former Riverview movie theater on Delaware Avenue as a major arts institution (which I might).
I didn’t have a connection to the arts as a kid growing up in Philly, and that continued into my early adulthood. The arts, as they are usually presented, can feel snobbish and disconnected from the world most of us experience. To me, it felt like art was an interest that only the rich and specifically talented were drawn to, not a fundamental part of the human experience.
But my opinion changed because of First Fridays, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next week on May 6. Without First Fridays, my entire life would be different.
Old City, of course, wasn’t always about the arts, either.
But by the 1970s, the neighborhood had morphed into a place that not only housed so much of the history of the United States, but also a burgeoning underground arts scene. This was due in large part to the real estate market at the time, which made unique loft and former factory spaces accessible to a then-new generation of creatives. It didn’t hurt that this was all located in a tight-knit neighborhood close to public transit and the shops and amenities found in Center City.
By 1990, the Old City Arts Association had formed to organize the efforts of what was then a dozen or so art galleries to draw foot traffic into their spaces. That’s where the idea of a monthly “open house” was introduced and how First Fridays began. On Friday, May 6, you can learn more about the history of First Fridays at the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House at 239 Arch St., where a 10-minute documentary will air between 8 and 9 p.m.
“First Fridays broke down the barriers between me and the art world.”
By my 20s, from roughly 2005-2015, Old City’s First Fridays had grown to become a staple of Philly’s cultural scene. Like Wawa and Ben Franklin, First Fridays transcended any category and just became part of Philly. Each month, I would walk through Old City galleries and marvel at artwork. Gallery owners were so welcoming, thanking me and every other visitor for coming in, often handing us boxed wine in plastic cups. The typically quiet streets in the neighborhood transformed into a bustling, exciting hub of pedestrians celebrating creativity and beauty. The energy was addictive.
For me, the experience of attending First Fridays broke down the barriers between me and the art world. I was introduced to a world I had no idea I needed. Walking through those galleries helped me reset my thinking about what was art. Everything is art! The clothes you choose to put on every day are a creative expression. The memes you share in your group chats make you a curator. It’s all art! We can use art to work through our thoughts and feelings, to explore our histories and possible futures, and to comfort or challenge ourselves.
At First Fridays, I got to not only see art that was exciting and new, but I got to meet with artists and curators, and all in an environment that felt comfortable and approachable for someone like me with no prior experience. Some of my first writing was about exhibits I saw at First Fridays, which ultimately led to my blog, which has been the foundation of my career. Finding a home in the Philly arts world has changed my life so much for the better. Next Friday, maybe it can change yours.
Conrad Benner is a Fishtown-born and raised photographer, podcaster, curator, and founder of StreetsDept.com, a photo blog that discovers art on the streets of Philadelphia.