Keeper of the Plans

Artists want to make major change to Wichita’s Final Friday event

“Staggering” was the word used to describe how much Final Fridays have grown in Wichita over the past two decades.

On the final Friday of every month, galleries and businesses all over Wichita open their doors for an evening walkabout, typically to celebrate the opening of a new art show.

It’s been ongoing in Wichita since 1997, when a collective of Wichita artists — The Famous Dead Artists, as they were called — pioneered the idea of opening late on those evenings for casual studio tours.

At the time, Final Fridays were pitched as a mirror to Kansas City’s well-established First Friday gallery crawl.

Since then, multiple other regional cities — including Denver, Tulsa and Santa Fe, N.M. — have started similar gallery crawls, but on First Fridays.

Now some longtime Wichita artists say our differently timed Final Fridays separate us too much from the mainstream.

A group of local artists and gallery owners spearheaded by Wichita’s longest-running gallerist, Reuben Saunders, are leading a movement to shift Wichita’s Final Fridays to the first Friday of the month instead.

But some think making such a significant change to Final Fridays, which have only in the past decade become a mainstream cultural event, could derail progress in the local art scene.

“This is for the artists,” Saunders said. “This is about trying to maximize their opportunities, and ... we should be doing everything we can to promote their art in the best light.”

How did we get here?

The idea for Final Fridays in Wichita came from a group of edgy artists in the ‘90s who called themselves the Famous Dead Artists.

That group — which included Christopher Gulick, Wade Hampton, Marc Bosworth, Brad Hart, Leigh Leighton-Wallace, Scott Steele, Pam Terry, Jennifer Wallace and Curt Clonts — is seen as one of the pioneers of Wichita’s alternative art scene (meaning art outside of a formal museum setting).

Bosworth, who now works as an art director for Wichita’s Greteman Group, said the group decided that, in 1997, “there was starting to be enough momentum and enough things happening in town” to justify a monthly art-gallery crawl.

“Most of us knew that any city that had any kind of art scene had some sort of monthly gallery walk,” Bosworth added.

So the Famous Dead Artists decided to open up their “lounge” gallery in the upstairs portion of 518 E. Douglas for tours on Final Friday evenings.

Soon other galleries joined in on the concept, including the Fisch Haus, Gallery XII, The Tractor Factory (1109 1/2 E. Douglas) and the Acme Gallery (630 E. Douglas).

But Final Friday was nowhere near as popular as it is now — Bosworth said there were a lot of nights in those first few months when the Famous Dead Artists “would sit together in the gallery, eat some chips, and every once in a while somebody would walk in the door.”

Brent Miller, who owned the Evo Gallery across the hall from the Famous Dead Artists Lounge, came up with the idea to call it “Final Friday,” Bosworth said.

“Being the Famous Dead Artists, we were up for anything that sounded edgy or had that edgy feel to it,” Bosworth said. “I don’t think any of us thought about, ‘Would it make more sense to do it at the beginning of the month or the end of the month?’

“We just kind of liked the sound of the name.”

In those early days, the Old Town gallery scene was an exciting, energetic one: Final Friday openings were full-on events, often featuring music, performance and a lively party atmosphere — especially whenever the Fisch Haus was involved.

Over the years, the atmosphere of Final Fridays has tamed a bit as more places in town get involved.

That doesn’t mean they’re not still social events, however — on any given Final Friday, you can see a wide cross-section of Wichitans taking in the festivities together.

Bosworth said Final Fridays began to explode in popularity once the City of Wichita got behind the event, running the Q-Line trolley to make traveling between galleries easier.

Now it’s nigh impossible to attend every Final Friday opening each month, as it’s not uncommon for 30-40 different businesses to host events that night.

It’s gotten to the point where Harvester Arts, a nonprofit arts organization in Old Town, has started hosting art events on nights other than Final Friday, in a bet that eschewing that packed schedule will pay off with more attendance.

“I don’t know if Final Friday is the difference-maker in terms of audience or not,” said Kate Van Steenhuyse, founder and executive director of Harvester Arts. “We constantly worry about getting audience and whether you are shooting yourself in the foot by not following Final Friday, and yet at the same time there’s no way people can make it to all the things on Final Friday.”

Various groups have tried to replicate the success of the Final Friday over the years on First Fridays, particularly in the local music scene. Those ventures have been ultimately unsuccessful, as Final Friday remains the premier monthly cultural event in town.

Why people want to switch to First Fridays

So if Final Friday’s so great, why do people want to change it?

It’s about trying to do what’s best for the artists who depend on sales from those openings, Saunders said.

Across the art world, fall is typically regarded as the beginning of exhibition season, after the slow summer subsides.

But in Wichita, Saunders said sales from art shows can plummet during that time because of ill-timed Final Fridays around Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

“Artists are trying to sell, and as a gallery owner my responsibility is to the artist,” Saunders said. “Those three months — a major shopping time of the year — would be vastly improved by the shift.”

Curt Clonts, a local artist who regularly provides arts commentary on KMUW, said he “always sighs a little bit” when he’s offered Final Friday openings in October, November or December, “because I know I’m in for it.”

“It’s going to be a little lackluster of an opening — it just isn’t what it could be,” Clonts said. “You’ve basically got three months at the end of the year ... which are wasted because they don’t fall on the first Friday of the month.”

And for artists in Wichita who don’t have other day jobs, they rely on those sales to help pay the bills.

“When I started in the ‘90s, that money ... made house payments or car payments, and it paid for braces on kids’ teeth and on and on,” Clonts said. “I always sold art exactly when we really needed the money, but I think I’d have sold more if I hadn’t had to suffer through Final Fridays during traditional exhibition show months of fall and winter. I think we can really up the income for some artists in town if we make a switch.”

Charlotte Martin, artistic director at CityArts, said it also makes more logistical sense to open a show at the beginning of the month and tear it down at the end of the month.

“It’s always kind of confusing (on Final Friday), are you opening or closing?” Martin said. “I just think it’d be a lot less confusing if you have an opening the first of the month and it goes through the month.”

Too soon to change?

Making such a fundamental change to Final Friday should not be taken lightly, said Elizabeth Stevenson, director of the Fisch Haus gallery.

The city and its arts community have spent years building up the Final Friday concept, and care must be taken not to upset that progress just for the sake of making a change, she said.

“The community as a whole has spent a great deal of time and energy promoting the Final Friday concept — we in the art community are very aware of it and it seems like rather old news to us, but there are still, literally, thousands of people who are not part of that community,” Stevenson said. “Our thought was that it may be a little early on in the process to switch things up, because we maybe still haven’t quite educated everybody.”

Stevenson emphasized, though, that if the collective decision is indeed made to switch to First Fridays, that Fisch Haus will also make the switch — though “we’re already halfway done with our 2020 scheduling, and I feel like we’re going to have to decide soon.”

Fisch Haus, as a gallery, rarely hosts art shows that feature works for sale — the gallery recently has focused on installation art, performances and other forms of experiential art.

Another benefit to keeping Final Fridays the way they are: Wichita could become a regional art destination as the only city with a “Final Friday” in the area.

“Personally, I have no problem being off-schedule because it allows people to come to us,” she said. “We have a lot of Kansas City friends who come to visit us for Final Friday, and they are gallery owners themselves in KC.”

Some of those Kansas City galleries have been known to showcase Wichita artists on First Fridays there as well.

John Ellert, of the Gallery XII cooperative, said in an email forwarded to a wide swath of Wichita art professionals that the gallery is “lukewarm to the idea as it would be disruptive to our established practice,” adding that Gallery XII’s treasurer calculated 90 percent of the gallery’s monthly sales happen on Final Friday.

“It takes a long time for people to adjust to a new schedule which could result in loss of sales and be confusing to customers,” Ellert wrote in the email. “That said, we would wholeheartedly go along and support an art-community decision if all other galleries decide that a move to First Friday would best serve Wichita’s artists, art patrons and purchasers of art.”

The gallery has since voiced its support for the First Friday shift.

If Wichita does decide to make the switch to First Fridays, it must be an all-in effort, said Van Steenhuyse of Harvester Arts.

“I think people will sort of stick together, and to me that’s all that really matters,” she said. “If we as an arts community stay with a clear, unified message, I think the public will adapt.”

What happens now?

As Final Friday is an organic movement by gallery owners and operators, there’s nothing stopping them from making a switch to First Friday at any time.

In fact, Riverside’s Midwest Center for Photography has already made the switch.

As of February, the gallery has decided to open all of its shows on the first Friday of the month, then open again on Final Fridays for closing receptions.

Linda Robinson, owner of the gallery, said in an email she thinks it makes sense to try it out, especially since her gallery is off the popular Final Friday routes.

After talking with various gallery owners in town, Saunders said he is planning on making his own transition to First Fridays in September.

That extra time also allows them to spread the word about the change and drum up ample marketing for art openings at the beginning of the month.

“It’s going to be up to the galleries to really make that change, and everybody else will fall in line,” Clonts said. “Reuben’s been doing this for 40 years — he knows what the proper mix ought to be ... and I don’t think he’s at all wrong on this. I think he’s dead-on.”

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.