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ae fridayFirst Friday Santa Cruz celebrates its 10th anniversary 

A huge monthly party celebrating the local creative community, First Friday is now a cornerstone of Santa Cruz’s cultural scene. But 10 years ago, before it was a wildly popular event, it consisted of little more than galleries in empty storefronts, a tiny walking tour, and a bus painted to resemble a cow that shuttled art appreciators around.

Still, First Friday co-founders Kirby Scudder and Chip believed there was an opportunity in Santa Cruz to match up artists with an appreciative local audience. First Friday was created around the core idea of promoting artists, something of which this area has no shortage. In fact, the event stemmed in part from the pair asking themselves how, in such an art-rich town, there could be so few galleries.

“Santa Cruz was clearly ripe for such an event,” says Chip. “We have all of the elements—we have a community that really likes to participate, we have a growing community of people interested in culture, we have an incredible climate, and we have an incredible pool of creatives here.”

Chip and Scudder set about testing the market with the series of events—and cow-bus tours—that would eventually become First Friday Santa Cruz.

As the event celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it’s clear that their hunch about the local art scene was correct. But as the event has grown, it’s become a focal point not just for art, but for all types of cultural activity, including ribbon cuttings, openings, parties and other events. Some of the First Friday anchor venues over the years—many of which have been involved from the very beginning—include Artisans, Santa Cruz County Bank, Stripe, Felix Kulpa Gallery, Pure Pleasure, the library, the MAH and Michaelangelo Studios.

Robbie Schoen, director of the Felix Kulpa Gallery, has watched First Friday grow in size and significance over the years.

“It reminds me of the situation at the MAH,” he says. “I’ve been working there for at least eight years, and finally there’s momentum now where it’s just getting better and better, like a rocket to the moon. The same thing is happening with First Friday. Who doesn't want to be a part of something that’s getting better all the time?”

Combining the cultural variety of a big city with the neighborly feel of a small town, First Friday now brings crowds to the streets of Santa Cruz. Chip admits it’s not only satisfying, but kind of a relief.

“It's really exciting to see the vibrancy, and think back to when Kirby and I were standing there waiting to see if 10 people were going to show up for the art tour,” he says. “There was a time not too long ago where the vibrancy just didn’t exist at the level it does now.”

First Friday’s 10th anniversary celebration begins this summer, and for the June 6 edition, a new gallery, Felix Kulpa II, located at 209 Laurel Street, will join the festivities. It will host a preview of the new space, and an exhibit titled “Love’s Body,” featuring artworks, oration and music inspired by the words and life of Santa Cruz’s own Norman O. Brown.

Schoen says the new gallery is, like the original Felix Kulpa Gallery, an experiment. First Friday is an essential part of the experiment. “I sell more art that night than any other time,” he says. “It’s a regular thing I can depend on. This is my idea of trying to get a business to succeed, and I can’t do it without it.”

Another exhibit that First Friday organizers are particularly excited about for June 6 is “Faces of Santa Cruz” at the Art Loft, located at 1319 Pacific Avenue, above Pacific Thai. The show features David Dennis’ large-scale portraits of Santa Cruz County residents, including local public figures, and people who were at one point homeless, but are now housed and supported by the 180/180 program. There are dozens of additional exhibits at a variety of venues including shops, museums and a growing number of galleries.

First Friday’s 10th anniversary celebration will continue with a street fair in the fall. As for the future of the event, Chip says that for as big as it’s gotten, it has still just barely tapped into the potential that exists in Santa Cruz. But the mission of supporting artists in Santa Cruz is something that organizers have worked to keep as the main priority as the event has grown.

“The best case scenario is that First Friday stays authentic to the artists,” he says. “That’s a key piece of the event. For the arts economy to work, you need to support the artists.”

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