First Fridays Art Walk continues to shape Richmond arts community during pandemic

A First Friday attendee views an exhibit on display at Anne’s Visual Art Studio Gallery. Photo by Mohamad Baltaji

Swaay Cook, Contributing Writer

Music erupts from all around. Chatter can be heard from onlooking crowds. The galleries and museums are visited slowly at first, but as the night goes on the crowds begin to grow.

The First Fridays Art Walk, hosted by the Downtown Neighborhood Association, has been a monthly event highlighting Richmond arts for over 20 years. A variety of businesses participate, including local museums, galleries, theaters, restaurants and shops.

“People have come out and are showing off their outfits. It makes me so happy to see people looking for any excuse to dress up,” said Georgia Clay, a First Friday event attendee. 

However, at the peak of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, galleries and museums have had to adapt. The pandemic initially caused many galleries and businesses to close and multiple First Fridays to be cancelled. 

“COVID has greatly affected the way in which we are able to present exhibitions to the public, from standard mask requirements to more exhibition-specific adjustments — like the opening of our normally closed back doors so that visitors can move through the space and allow for easier social distancing,” said Park Myers, curator for the 1708 Gallery. 

Myers said that for 1708 Gallery, First Fridays are a way for them to connect with the local community through art. They are also beneficial because they connect businesses with people who are immensely interested in the art they display and the artists that create the art, creating relationships through a mutual appreciation of art.

The First Fridays event resumed in May of this year. Since reopening, businesses that participated in First Friday events have put in place their own COVID-19 measures, including Prabir Mehta, the Gallery5 board of directors chair. 

Galleries, museums and shops in the Richmond area have implemented preventative measures such as temperature checks, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result and allowing for more open space to provide a safe environment for exhibitions.

“We have been checking temperatures for entry since we have been reopened. We don’t want anyone with 100-degree temperature getting in here and potentially infecting others not just with COVID-19, but who knows what,” Mehta said. 

Egbert Vongmalaithong, assistant curator of commerce and publications at the Institute for Contemporary Art, said the ICA has been “thinking outside the box” in order to offer events that people will enjoy, even if they’re not in person. 

“I think mostly we want to foreground intimate meaningful experiences which is something that I think can be challenging to do,” Vongmalaithong said. “We have been able to present some experiences that have let people safely engage with the institution.”

He said that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the ICA to find new ways to interact with visitors and bring other art forms to life while still maintaining safe social distancing. Although the pandemic brought a lot of challenges to art institutions, it caused a lot of them to find new ways to present art from local artists.

The ICA organized a hotline called 1-844-NOT-ZOOM where artists sent in audio clips, so when people called the number, they would hear different types of non-visual artistic content. 

“So audiences would dial in and listen to it, it might be like a poem or it might be like a musical piece or it might be a sound piece — something that was to be experienced through the phone,” Vongmalaithong said. “The goal was to create an intimate experience.” 

Vincent Mangano, a Richmond native who attended this month’s First Friday, said that he was hesitant to attend the event because the activities didn’t seem like they were open to people who weren’t artists or artistic elites. 

Magano said he has noticed changes to the event to include more artists of color throughout the years. Gallery5’s most recent First Friday exhibition was entitled “Mother India,” and featured culturally influenced art, shlokas — or poetic blessings — and an Indian rock band. 

However, he said that the events later started to feel more inclusive and open to all people, making it more of a community event.

“There have definitely been more POC art being exhibited and people who aren’t white going to these events. Most people who went were very involved in the art scene and now it seems like the general public goes to see the art,” Mangano said. “You get more people who wouldn’t normally see this stuff in their day-to-day life.” 

With First Fridays open to the public again, many of the participating businesses are glad to showcase their work at the monthly events.

“First Fridays are great because they have allowed for this region’s network of art to have an opportunity to shine,” Mehta said. “I enjoy that Gallery5 gets to participate in it.”

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