As the first Friday of the month arises once again this week, the normally quiet downtown streets will be filled with the buzz of laughter, discussion, music and more as students and locals alike attend Lubbock’s 176th First Friday Art Trail.
The First Friday Art Trail is hosted from 6-9 p.m. on the First Friday of every month in the Lubbock Cultural District, according to the FFAT website. The event is free and showcases art in more than 15 venues.
Although the trail has now become a staple of life in Lubbock, when it first started as a small gathering for artists to showcase and sell their works, those involved never could have imagined it growing to the level it has today, Larry Simmons, owner of Tornado Gallery, said.
“Everybody has ideas, everybody has a great idea and then to pull that idea of once is generally a miracle, but to sustain an idea is tough work and to sustain a monthly event over the course of 14 years now, my hat’s off to them,” Simmons said. “That’s a tough thing to do.”
The trail began with Kathryn Oler, the director of the what is now known as the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts, Andy Wilkinson, artist in residence at the Southwest Archives, said. Many communities have some version of a first Thursday or First Friday art festival, and Oler wanted to implement that in Lubbock.
The first time the trail actually occurred in Lubbock was around 2005, Simmons said.
“It had been modeled after numerous other cities, but the first one that they ever did was actually called the Winter Art Walk, and I think it was in December of 2005, and it was only four locations at that time,” Simmons said.
At the time, the art campus downtown was small, Wilkinson said. The Adams Galleries, the Icehouse and many other key venues on the trail today had not been built.
The trail was essentially the Underwood Center and Steve Teeters’ studio, he said. Teeters, a key figure in the origin of the Art Trail who is now deceased, was a local artist working with metal and installations who owned St. Eligius Studio at the time.
“Steve, it was pretty much just his studio and the Underwood Center, and you could walk back and forth,” Wilkinson said.
At the time, the character of the trail was fundamentally different, Wilkinson said. It was more for patrons and members of the art community rather than the general public.
In those days, those involved with the trail would go to Market Street to buy trays of veggies and wine, or Teeters would make chili and stew and set it out, Wilkinson said. The artists showed their art with Teeters.
Notably, there was also a substantial amount of buying art at the trail itself in those days, he said.
“The big difference I think to me was that it was a lot smaller, but people came to buy art and there was a lot of art sold,” he said. “I don’t think any art sells now (on the trail), you never see anybody.”
The trail continued to grow with time, Wilkinson said. Much of the credit for this initial growth should go to people like Oler, Teeters and Deborah Milosevich. Milosevich, a professor at Tech teaching art at the time, required her students to attend the trail.
“I think those kinds of things really helped spread the word that, ‘Hey this is fun, it doesn’t cost anything, get a free glass of wine and a piece of broccoli or whatever,’ but it’s a fun evening,” he said.
The Buddy Holly Center, which was already established at the time, took awhile to come onto the trail since it was run by the city, and the trail was independently run by the LHUCA. However, the center’s eventual involvement, along with the establishment of the Tornado Gallery, extended the trail’s reach, he said.
“When Tornado Gallery opened, it really helped because they were really good about having events there too, so you had now sort of another anchor, and I think that’s helped contain it in the sense that it really makes it convenient for folks to go (during First Friday),” he said.
The Tornado Gallery opened on the First Friday of April 2007, Simmons said. The trail had been going on for approximately two years and only had seven or eight locations when the gallery started.
Simmons had been involved with the art community himself but was initially utilizing the building the Tornado Gallery is now located in as a storage. In 2005 and 2006, he and co-owner Tony Greer began thinking of what to with the building.
“It’s in the Depot District, so we wanted to do something with it but we did not want to just do another bar,” he said. “I worked downtown for 25 years now, so I was involved with the beginnings of the Depot District, and it needed to something different. We needed an arts anchor here.”
In late 2006, Greer, a neon artist, did a show at the Underwood Center, and he and Simmons met everyone at the Underwood Center, Simmons said.
“That’s when we said, ‘You know what, we’re just going to open up a gallery,’ we’re going to do this as part of the First Friday,” Simmons said.
First Friday did everything the Depot District was trying to do, he said. There were people on the streets, walking around and enjoying themselves.
“It was everything that you want an organic entertainment district to be, and it was based around art,” he said.
Today, the trail has morphed into more of a destination event, one in which people go to spend time and enjoy themselves, Wilkinson said. A turning point in realizing the evolution of the event was when he sold his last piece at First Friday not in a show or gallery, but in the parking lot of the Buddy Holly Center.
“I was walking across the parking lot with it, and someone says, ‘Did you buy that?’ and I said ‘No, no, this is mine,’ and they said ‘Well is it for sale?’ yes, and I sold it in the parking lot,” he said.
It was a wake-up moment, he said. The situation had already existed, but he just had not thought about it.
While the growth of the trail has been wonderful, the lack of accessible, affordable art at the show in some ways defeats the original purpose of the trail, which was to get people involved in art, he said. Looking at art is better than nothing, he said, but it is not the same as actively purchasing and collecting art.
“That was sort of a big motivation for us,” he said. “None of us ever thought we were ever going to make lot of money selling art - we hoped we’d sell enough to pay for the wine that we were giving away and the food - but the idea was to establish relationship with an audience and educate them about art.”
As the trail continues to evolve going into the future, Simmons said it will become more important to rein in the trail so it does not lose its focus.
The trail has already reached a critical mass, he said, and while the trail can be used to publicize other events, other events should be hosted at different times so all can attend.
Additionally, it is important to maintain the status quo of highlighting visual arts.
“(First Friday) gave the visual artist equal opportunity as the musicians in Lubbock,” he said. “Musicians in Lubbock have always had kind of a first …so the art trail has given the visual artists a chance to attain the importance in the community that they deserve.”
The trail has grown so big that now the LHUCA is trying to keep it at a place where it is still an opportunity for local artists to be featured, Jordan Canal, programs coordinator for LHUCA, said.
“It kind of just keeps growing and growing, and people come because they know they’re going to experience something different,” she said. “Every month is different.”
Because First Friday is such a big event in Lubbock, it attracts more than people who are involved in the arts, she said. People may come out for the food trucks, the music, to see a dance troupe and more.
By attending, however, they are also exposed to art, one of the strengths of the trail, she said.
“Because there’s so many things happening during First Friday Art trail, you’re grabbing at so many different audiences and because it’s all in such a nice central location, it’s very easy for audiences to get exposed to things they may not have before,” Canal said.
It is hard to imagine how the trail will look in the future, Wilkinson said. However, its impact on downtown Lubbock and the development of its art scene today is undeniable.
“You wouldn’t have what we have now without the First Friday Art Trail,” he said.