The Grassroots Boom of the First Friday Art Crawl

First Friday Art Crawl (photo credit: Paolo Fortin/Evans Contemporary)
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Offcut slabs of hand-painted drywall mark the many stops of Peterborough’s First Friday Art Crawl. In November, the tendrils of the Crawl seemed to reach a little further. Initially launched in April of this year, the Crawl has grown significantly, hundreds of people now passing through the spaces on the first Friday of every month, to share food and conversation in the presence of art. Evans Contemporary, Star X, Coeur Nouveau, Acme, Christensen Fine Art, and often Studio in the Attic on the other side of Hunter Street all open their doors to the droves of art patrons. Sometimes an old movie is projected across the parking lot on the exterior wall of Evans. Sometimes you get chatting with your favourite city councillor. Occasionally in the studios, work is bought as it’s made.

First Friday Art Crawl (photo credit: Paolo Fortin/Evans Contemporary)The event receives no funding, and is run entirely by a group of artists and arts champions “with the drive, commitment, and know-how to launch zero budget arts events.” They are informally known as the Ad Hoc Art Committee. Paolo Fortin, the force behind Evans Contemporary, describes the group as “a guerrilla organization and prankster cell, that believes the current arts, funding, and government systems in the city, province, and country are broken.” Their manifesto focuses on self-determination, inclusivity, high-quality artwork, and a belief that “a rich art ecology is the cornerstone of a healthy society.”

The partnerships that support the Crawl are entirely community-based. Rolland Hosier of St. Veronus lends his PA system so resident DJ Joel Davenport can spin house music in the Bankers Commons, Kerri Niemi of the Sapphire Room provides ice for drinks and a microphone for poet-in-residence Justin Million to read the work he writes live on his Smith Corona typewriter, and artists Ann Jaeger and Sarah Gibeault sort out the final details that make the event a monthly success.

Although audiences have steadily increased, the November Crawl surpassed everyone’s expectations. Fortin explained that last month’s Crawl was different in two ways. “First off, we partnered up with the Precarious Festival organized by Kate Story and Ryan Kerr of the Theatre on King. Throughout the evening, choreographed performances organized by Precarious took place throughout the Commerce Building. Kate and Ryan and their team do a great job with public relations and media launches, and it helped to get the word out about the Art Crawl.”

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The connection with the Precarious Festival brought new disciplines to the event, featuring theatre and dance in addition to the usual visual art, music, and poetry. Precarious volunteers scurried all over the downtown clad in Laurel Paluck’s Atelier Ludmila rat masks, as a nod to the “pay the piper” theme of the festival, and building on the existing “circus-like festival atmosphere” of the Crawls.

First Friday Art Crawl (photo credit: Paolo Fortin/Evans Contemporary)“Secondly,” said Fortin, “we had numerous new participants wanting to be included in the Crawl in November.” The buzz that the Crawl has generated since April has become so substantial that many stores have extended their hours on the first Fridays to profit from the increased foot traffic. The route now includes shops like Watson & Lou, META4 Gallery, Marie Cluthé Antiques, and even Black Honey Dessert and Coffeehouse, in addition to the original set of galleries and studio spaces.

This foot traffic has also benefited several downtown restaurants and pubs. Places like the Sapphire Room, St. Veronus, Le Petit Bar, Catalina’s, and the Only become “rallying points” before and after the Crawl. According to Fortin, “We are beginning to see people come out who have never set foot in a gallery, never heard a DJ spin house music, or heard a poetry reading. We are meeting people in the gallery that have never been downtown on a Friday night, and are awestruck that it isn’t as dangerous as it’s been labeled. We’ve begun to see people congregating at the restaurants before heading out to the crawl, reserving space a month in advance in order to have a complete night out on the town during First Friday. At the end of the night, the bars are full of art crawlers having a late night tipple.” The Only was so crowded on November 3 that there was hardly room to stand.

First Friday Art Crawl (photo credit: Paolo Fortin/Evans Contemporary)The very act of walking is known to connect communities. In The Great Neighborhood Book, Jay Walljasper quotes former Berkeley architecture professor Christopher Alexander as saying, “It seems that people, of all cultures, may have a general need for this kind of human mixing which the promenade makes possible.” By having a shared route with common destinations, the Art Crawl unifies our community in a way that few other events can. “This art community that has been shunned, unsupported, walked on, kicked around, and used, can change an entire district through creativity, vision, willpower and sweat,” Fortin said. “Carnival lights and magic lend a hand.”


Photos by Paolo Fortin/Evans Contemporary.

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Elisha May Rubacha

Elisha May Rubacha

Elisha May Rubacha is the editor and designer of bird, buried press.