On September 1, First Friday Rochester will celebrate 10 years of striving toward citywide collaboration between local art venues and promoting a healthy arts and culture scene. Since its inception in September 2007, the initiative has been an important tradition for the city, one that RIT has been a critical part of. 

Most larger cities have some variation of First Fridays in place, often called “art walks,” where galleries, small museums and artists’ studios open their doors to the public on the first Friday evening of each month. The overall goal of these ventures is to attract people to city centers and downtowns with “mass” openings and exhibitions to strengthen art communities.

Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo), led by Executive Director and Curator Bleu Cease is behind the initiation and administration of First Friday Rochester. When discussions first began for establishing Rochester’s very own First Friday, Cease found that there was collective support from smaller art venues. At the time, conversations between these venues showed that there was a concern that major media outlets (television, newspapers) were not covering their exhibitions well, if at all.

These marginalized galleries, cultural organizations and non-profits saw First Friday as a way to “become the media,” promoting both themselves and each other.

Cease and the others that helped bring First Friday to Rochester looked to cities with well-established art walks and gallery nights to see what model would work best for the Flower City. They visited neighboring cities, taking bus trips to Syracuse and carpooling to Buffalo to attend gallery nights, but also drew inspiration from the models used in Missoula, M.T. and Asheville, N.C.

The model that Cease has found to work best for Rochester is when the venues are in close proximity, mainly in the Neighborhood of the Arts (NOTA) and the East End. Any venue can participate, with Cease preferring to advertise them neutrally so that all different kinds of artists and venues can expose the variety of work they do, medium-wise. However, the event is geared more toward increasing the visibility of smaller institutions, rather than museums that are self-sufficient. Participants are asked to pay a small fee to be listed in marketing materials and “officially” be a part of First Friday, which is how the cooperative, shared promotional strategy works.

First Friday Rochester started very grassroots, with no funding and only four venues open for the first night in September 2007. But one of those first venues was RIT’s very own downtown Gallery r. John Aäsp, gallery director for RIT’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, surmises that Zerbe Sodervick, director of Gallery r up until 2015, was likely immediately convinced to join Cease’s early efforts with the First Friday project.

"[Sodervick] was very community-oriented, she liked any kind of outreach; she was an artist herself, so she was already a member of the art community," Aäsp notes. 

Today, Cease still stresses the benefits of First Friday participation for Gallery r, especially because of its downtown location; on-campus university galleries sometimes participate, but they don’t generate the same traffic because they are farther removed from the heart of the downtown event.  

Even after moving from their Park Ave. space to their NOTA location in 2012 and under the new leadership of Aäsp, Gallery r has continued to participate in First Friday. Aäsp sees value in RIT’s ongoing involvement, for the students, faculty and alumni that show at Gallery r and for the visitors who come to see the exhibitions.

“People don’t necessarily go look at art as much in Rochester as we’d like — it’s hard to get foot traffic — and so I think First Friday was an effort to get everyone excited to go see art one night a month and I think it has increased awareness and interest because it focuses everyone’s energy on a particular time,” said Aäsp.

Gallery r typically averages between 150 and 200 visitors on a First Friday, depending on the time of year, which increases the artists’ visibility in the broader community. The energy and vibrancy of the city are at full-force on these nights when everyone comes out with the purposes of appreciating art and supporting small local institutions.

“It’s good for RIT to have a presence in Rochester’s art community. I think RIT’s always prided itself on being a mixture of science and technology, art and creativity." Aäsp says. "You can’t really do that unless you’ve got a space where the arts and creativity are being shown to the public, so what better way to do that than plug into what the community’s already doing?” 

While it would be expected that an initiative that has become such a vital part of Rochester culture would be city or county-funded, Cease notes that this is not the case for First Friday. He believes that because the City of Rochester and Monroe County governments take it for granted that there is so much happening on the first Friday of each month, all initiated by independent businesses and citizens, they have not contributed financially to the project. First Friday sustains itself with donations and from the fees paid by participating venues. While the initiative has been successful in cross-promoting venues thus far, it will need city and county support to grow.

If you haven’t had the chance to get downtown for a First Friday, be sure to put that on your bucket list for this year. While RoCo and Cease have no definitive plans for First Friday’s 10th anniversary yet, RoCo, Gallery r and SUNY Brockport’s Visual Studies Workshop have something very special in the works for First Friday in October. Together, the venues will jointly present the Rochester Biennial, an event that was previously organized by the Memorial Art Gallery.