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First Friday: Walking the Arts District, Watching and Waiting

First Friday has reshaped the cultural and artistic scene downtown and has anchored the Arts District since its inception in 2002.

It has become a staple of the Las Vegas events scene, drawing new artists and talent to the area, as well as bringing locals out to walk the streets, mingle and convene; juxtaposing middle-aged art connoisseurs, families, yuppies, punk rock kids and everyone in between.

Born out of one determined woman's idea to bring a voice and exposure to the arts community in Las Vegas, First Friday has contributed greatly to the creation of an environment conducive to creativity and fun.

Today, First Friday is the premier monthly art festival in Las Vegas. It takes place in the 18b Arts District, named after the original 18 blocks it occupied in downtown Las Vegas and boasts anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 visitors per event. It offers up to 80 venues: art galleries and studios; food and drink, plus stores and more, along with as many as 50 outdoor artists and entertainers.

The event has grown out of its original 18 blocks and is now a 24-block, polygon-shaped zone with an urban mix of residential, cultural and commercial uses; bounded by Commerce and Fourth streets on the west, Hoover and Colorado avenues on the northern edges and Las Vegas Boulevard North to Charleston on the southeastern side.

Only 7 years ago, the event started out with more humble beginnings.

First Friday was created out of an inspiring visit to an art festival in Portland, Ore. where current First Friday Board President Cindy Funkhouser attended a community art event and grew convinced that this was exactly what the art scene in Las Vegas needed. After relocating to Las Vegas in 1984 from Iowa, Funkhouser settled in and opened a small but thriving antique store - The Funk House, located on Casino Center Boulevard in downtown Las Vegas. An avid supporter of the arts, she began by displaying local art in her store and ultimately became the visionary, driving force who created and shaped the First Friday event into what it is today.

Regardless of the daunting size of such a project, Funkhouser set out to organize the inaugural grassroots art event, which took place on October 4, 2002, and the first First Friday event drew 10 art exhibits and 300 visitors.

Soon after, Whirlygig Inc., a Nevada arts nonprofit company, was formed to oversee the organization and the growth of First Friday with Funkhouser at the helm of the 11-member board. Local gallery owner Naomi Arin serves as board vice president, and the assistant company manager for Cirque du Soleil, Danielle Rodenkirchen, is board secretary.

Although, in its initial stages, First Friday was a small, organic festival, it quickly grew too large for Whirlygig Inc. to organize and support on its own. Funkhouser garnered the support of the Nevada Arts Council and Mayor Oscar Goodman, who immediately saw the value in First Friday's contribution to the fabric of the Las Vegas downtown environment - undoubtedly its economy, too.

Goodman, a longtime champion of the downtown revitalization efforts to create an "urban village" environment, proclaimed, "First Friday is the best thing that has ever happened to Las Vegas."

It is the mayor's vision to create a rich downtown experience; one filled with a wide range of small businesses, boutiques, fine dining, bookshops, art galleries and lively venues in order to create a trendy, eclectic, metropolitan downtown neighborhood where the public can engage in dialogue and exchange ideas. The ultimate goal: creation of a place where Las Vegans can work, play and call home.

Over the years, the Nevada Arts Council has been instrumental in contributing funding for the well-established festival, and the City of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs still continues to provide the required infrastructure, event coordination and consulting support for six out of 12 events of the year.

As the popularity, size of the event and resulting costs continued to grow, the organizers instituted a small entry charge to access the pedestrian-only areas of the event including the performance stages and street fair displays.

Over the years, First Friday has drawn a wide range of local artists and musicians to display their creativity in the various galleries, studios and walkways. One of the major hubs in the area is the Arts Factory, which is home to more than 20 of the most prominent artists, professionals and art galleries in the district, including Trifecta Gallery, Studio West Photography, Cricket Studios, Niki J. Sands Contemporary Fine Art and the celebrated Paymon's Mediterranean Bistro. Every month, thousands meander through the open doors and the art-filled, winding gallery spaces of the Arts Factory to preview the latest works on display by local artists.

At the southernmost corner of the 18b Arts District are the Commerce Street studios, a place to call home for several artists groups: The Fallout Gallery, Elizabeth Blau Studios, Wendy Kveck Studio, Circadian Studios and Naked City Tattoo. In addition to the numerous resident artists, the Arts District is home to a few dozen unique restaurants, stores and shops dotted throughout the area, including the Gypsy Den, The Attic (made famous through entertainment media), Master Craft Furniture and William's Costume.

Despite all efforts, the funding for First Friday has been stretched to its limits so much so that the June, July and August events had to eliminate the customary street closures for pedestrian activities. As a result, the artists' exhibits are being reduced to approximately 18 instead of the usual 30; the performance stages have been reduced from three to a single stage, and the street performers will be few, if not entirely eliminated.

On any given First Friday, it was commonplace to find a wide range of artists and musicians lining the streets and sidewalks, displaying all manner of art - sometimes in even unimaginable mediums, including performance art. Street performers have included break dancers, fire breathers, Argentine tango dancers, fortune tellers, musicians and DJs.

And no event in Las Vegas would be complete without the after party. Beauty Bar is one of the most popular destinations once the evening events come to a close; other spots are Dino's Lounge and Frankie's Tiki Room, where locals and visitors head down for dancing, karaoke and specialty drinks to wind down or start the night.

First Friday is a culture, and countless locals and frequent visitors expect to enjoy themselves on this designated night, each month, without fail. It is still unclear if the street fair aspect of the event will come back in the fall months, as it entirely depends on Whirlygig's summertime fundraising efforts, which has been dependent upon sponsors, individual contributions, private funds and event supporters.

Hopes are high with both attendees and organizers that the street fair portion of First Friday will be back in full swing by late summer or early autumn and that the event will continue to thrive despite the downturn. It is difficult to imagine the event fading away in its entirety. More likely, it will hibernate in its reduced size and budget before making a re-emergence of its former grandeur in the better economic years to come.

Aaron Archer, a local musician-composer, who has performed at First Friday street fairs and attended the event frequently since its early years, stated: "It's great to just play out in the open for whoever happens to wander by... Vegas needs street fairs because there's such a lack of culture."

Archer is optimistic about the future of what he calls "a unified event for the arts community" but offers his insights on returning to its origins.

"I like it better when it's more free and open, less structure. It started off interesting, but it really got corporate - gates and admission. I stopped going, but I went recently and there was a good turnout. It was more organic, like when it got started," Archer continued, adding a suggestion to up the amount of music groups to get more attendees.

"Local bands do have their own crowds that they could draw."

So it seems that despite First Friday's rapid growth, weakened funding and difficult times, which may paint a blurred picture of its future, it won't tone down the public's love for its Las Vegas street fair and art festival. First Friday events are announced for September 4 and October 2 from 6 p.m. - 10 p.m., as usual. For more information or ways to support the event, visit

Economic Waste in Recession-Impacted Nevada?

During the 1920s, Frank Detra moved to Las Vegas from Reno by way of Chicago and opened what is considered to be one of, if not the first, gaming casino on Highway 91, better known today as the Las Vegas Strip. His casino, the Pair-O-Dice, no longer stands, nor do the properties that followed: The Ambassador Nightclub, the Hotel Last Frontier, and the famous New Frontier. These properties were built on the bankroll of organized crime, and now former mob attorney and current Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman wants to celebrate the rich history of organized crime and the law enforcement that contended to shut down mob control of Sin City through a city-funded tourist attraction known as the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, affectionately coined the "Mob Museum"

Organized Crime in Las Vegas

Along with Detra, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel came to Las Vegas with mob money in his pocket and dollar signs in his eyes. Siegel oversaw the construction and eventual operation of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in 1946. Unfortunately for Bugsy, the men holding the purse strings, Meyer Lansky and his mob associates, were not impressed with how poorly Siegel was running their new multi-million dollar investment. Siegel met a brutal fate in Hollywood, with five bullets to the head, and three of Lansky's associates arrived in Vegas and took over immediate operation of the Flamingo.

During the 1950s and 60s almost every business venture that involved gaming and resort operations had Lansky's fingerprints clearly on it. The Siegelsnuff out and the subsequent takeover by business-minded mobsters provided the organized criminals with a high profit margin that lasted for years.

Many years later, a man named Allen Glick formed a corporation funded by teamsters' pension funds and purchased the now-defunct Stardust and Fremont resort casinos. Glick worked hand in hand with mob handicapper extraordinaire Lefty Rosenthals, who managed the properties as hotels under the guise of not being able to acquire the proper gaming licenses needed for gambling due to his previous criminal behavior. By the early 1980s, numerous officials and organized crime figures with ties to both Rosenthals and Glick had their state gaming licenses revoked, thus handcuffing the control that organized crime had over these properties. It was a sign of things to come.

Many locals, along with a majority of Mob historians, believe the end of organized crime in Las Vegas came by way of the Hole in the Wall gang, led by the late Tony "the Ant" Spilotro. Having wreaked havoc on the streets of Las Vegas through brutal, violent attacks and countless burglaries throughout the city, Spilotro opened the eyes of federal law enforcement as well as his crime bosses back in Chicago. Numerous arrests, indictments, and would be convictions sent Spilotro's gang either to prison or into hiding, and when Spilotro and his brother Michael returned to Chicago to handle business with their bosses they were found almost two weeks later-both beaten to death in an Indiana cornfield. As the old saying goes , "Loose lips sink ships."

With Spilotro's murder and Rosenthal's mischief within the casino industry shining light on the situation, Nevada Gaming officials as well as Federal Law Enforcement decided to make it their collective goal to put the control of Las Vegas' casinos and resorts into the ownership hands of corporate businesses, headed by men such as Steve Wynn. As those convictions and murders came down, so did the grip of power that organized crime had on Las Vegas.

Financing the Celebration of Crime?

Mayor Oscar Goodman's original goal was to acquire federal stimulus money for the "construction-ready" project, stating that jobs for the construction workforce would be plentiful, and that the thousands of visitors to the museum each year would help to stimulate the sagging Las Vegas economy. Opposition by way of Senator Mitch McConnell believes that federal funds via the stimulus package have absolutely no business being used for a mob museum. Said McConnell: "we would like, on the spending side, obviously, to avoid funding things like a mob museum or water slides."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid commented on the issue, stating "there will be no earmarks in the stimulus package." Congresswoman Dina Titus believes that any stimulus cash that Nevada receives would be put to better use by improving the transportation infrastructure. "You've got to be careful," she said. "The public's not going to put up with things."

So where does that leave the Las Vegas Organized Crime and Law Enforcement Museum? Who or what is flipping the bill on the estimated $50 million dollar construction tab, which will be located at an old U.S. Post Office building and courthouse? The Nevada Commission for Cultural Affairs approved an additional $83,000 this past November to go along with the $330,000 approved the month before to continue what is being called "retrofit" construction. The funding breakdown appears to look like this: $7 million in government grants, $8 million in city funds, and the remaining $35 million from Las Vegas' redevelopment group.

When asking citizens of Sin City whether they think Mayor Goodman's plans will work, it is a mixed bag response at best. Many Las Vegans feel that with an ever-increasing jobless rate, a massive housing crisis and a lack of funding for the fifth-largest school district in the country, there are many more pressing issues to be discussed.

Supporters such as Mayor Goodman believe that the museum will draw somewhere in the vicinity of 250,000 visitors per year, thus injecting much needed funds back into the Las Vegas tourism economy. Mob enthusiasts will be able to wire tap one another, have their very own mug shot taken, and there is even a room dedicated to organized crime's influence on pop culture scheduled to be included in the museum's exhibits. The museum has the backing of the FBI and supports the history of both organized crime, law enforcement's role in ending mob control in Las Vegas and the various stages of development and evolution the city has taken on since the 1920s.

Love the idea or despise it, the museum will be opening. Mayor Goodman, whose term is set to end in 2011, has this one last project to oversee, a project and a history that he directly was involved in and feels a personal attachment to. Whether his vision for the museum and its impact on the economy of Las Vegas is correct, only the ghosts of Vegas' past and the tourists of Vegas know for sure.