If you stand on the right street corner on certain weekend nights, downtown Raleigh can seem like the vibrant hub of a much, much bigger city. That’s especially the case at the beginning of each month, when First Friday brings the entire downtown arts district alive.
On the first Friday of June, Martin Street was closed to car traffic as deejays spun records, circus performers spun through the air and crowds milled about. “Moving Pieces,” the short play that uses First Friday as set and backdrop, moved through on its way to the Contemporary Art Museum, where thousands of people were gathered in its new “Wander Box” beer garden.
You could also hear music from the rock band Widespread Panic, playing a concert a few blocks south at Red Hat Amphitheater. A few blocks east, there was a display for a proposed new “parklet” mini-park on Salisbury Street. And all over downtown, crowds thronged through Visual Art Exchange, Artspace and other galleries.
Downtown Raleigh has picked up attention beyond the city’s borders, too. In May, USA Today declared Raleigh’s six-block warehouse district around Contemporary Art Museum on Martin Street one of the country’s “10 best city art districts,” alongside Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and other metroplexes.
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If you want to participate, about all you have to do is follow the crowds. They’ll be even larger than usual this fall, which is when downtown Raleigh’s arts district really pops. That is especially the case in September, when a string of events including the Hopscotch alternative-music festival and IBMA’s World of Bluegrass will keep the streets bustling. The city calls September “The M.A.I.N. Event” (an acronym for “Music, Arts, Innovation and Noise”).
“Every year, it really comes together with September’s M.A.I.N. Event stuff. The African-American Cultural Festival goes into Hopscotch goes into SPARKcon goes into Ray Price,” said Visual Art Exchange/SPARKcon director Sarah Powers, listing some of the month’s major downtown festivals. “Then at the end of the month comes IBMA, which will be an anchor fall event for years. And the thing about outdoor events in September is, it’s gonna rain, which is fine. The only thing that will sink us is if it turns out to be a hurricane that closes us down for a month. But stuff still goes on. Even a rainy First Friday is still busy. People still want to get out, connect, get inspired.”
Quaint idea to reality
Newcomers to the Triangle might see names like Steve Martin coming to town for IBMA last year and artist Peter Max appearing at The Mahler Fine Arts this November, and think that Raleigh has always had this level of an arts scene. Until recent years, however, the idea of a downtown Raleigh art district seemed like a quaint chamber-of-commerce fantasy, and it was a gaping hole in the city’s revitalization efforts.
“If you don’t have a robust arts district, you can’t attract convention business as readily as other cities,” said Laurie Okun, director of sales and marketing for the Raleigh Convention Center. “It’s very important to the eco-cycle of tax generation to have a great downtown arts district like we do now.”
But back in 1978, when painter/woodworker Anthony Ulinski set up a studio on Commerce Place, downtown was still more industrial than artistic.
Ulinski’s space is right behind what is now Humble Pie restaurant – only back then, it was a business that sold tile.
The big brick building now being turned into new headquarters for Citrix Systems was still Dillon Supply, a huge industrial-supply warehouse. And the building now occupied by The Pit barbecue restaurant was a records warehouse for Carolina Power & Light.
Ulinski was one of a handful of woodworkers in the area. For years, he didn’t have a sign up for his Dovetail studios. As soon as he put one up in the 1990s, he wished he hadn’t.
“I got broken into three times after I put up that sign,” he said. “It had been a creepy neighborhood, and I guess the bad guys assumed my building was empty and abandoned until they saw that. I can see why, though. I have pictures of the area from those days when it was completely empty, and my truck was the only vehicle on the street.”
Galleries came first
A half-mile away from Ulinski’s space, an art scene was starting to crystallize around Moore Square by the late 1980s. Marbles Kids Museum had yet to open, but several galleries sprang up on East Hargett Street and in City Market.
At that time, downtown Raleigh was pretty much dead every night after all the state workers headed home at 5 p.m. There was a feeling of swimming against the tide in those days.
“I had friends ask me with amazement, ‘Why did you go downtown?’,” said Melissa Peden, who owned a gallery in what is now Caffe Luna restaurant. “But even though the idea of driving downtown seemed so foreign to so many people, the last place I’d want to be is out in some shopping center. Downtown’s a much more interesting, varied mix than the other places.”
Encouraged by landlord York Properties, a half-dozen gallery owners including Peden and Rory Parnell (now owner of The Mahler Fine Art on Fayetteville Street) borrowed the “First Friday” concept from Baltimore to start up a monthly art walk in September 1990.
“It was a big deal,” Peden recalled. “The mayor came, we cut ribbons. And it was a hit from the get-go. I’m not saying it was great for sales, but people really enjoyed the outing, the wine we served, coming around with baby strollers.”
Building critical mass
First Friday caught on and was well-established by the mid-1990s, providing an outlet for a vibrant community of artists working in studios downtown as well as in nearby neighborhoods like Boylan Heights and Mordecai. Meanwhile, downtown was stirring to life, with nightclubs and restaurants moving into empty old industrial buildings and new construction bringing residential buildings back to downtown.
Exploris (now Marbles) opened in 1999 at the north end of Moore Square. That same year also saw a couple of alternative-rock nightclubs set up downtown, Lakeside Lounge (now Slims) on Wilmington Street and Kings on McDowell Street (where it would stay until being displaced by the Raleigh Convention Center in 2007, reopening three years later on Martin Street).
Fayetteville Street, which had been dormant for most of two decades as a pedestrian mall that never caught on, was reopened to traffic in 2006 – re-establishing it as Raleigh’s main street and reinvigorating the half-mile stretch between the State Capitol Building and Memorial Auditorium.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Raleigh Convention Center, Red Hat Amphitheater and Contemporary Art Museum all opened, adding critical mass while creating a west end of the art district to complement Moore Square’s east end a half-mile away.
These large facilities complemented the Memorial Auditorium complex as well as the smaller nightclubs the city already had, creating a district perfect for music and arts festivals and conventions like Hopscotch (which began in 2010) and World of Bluegrass (which came to Raleigh for the first time last year and will be here at least through 2018).
“It’s a district that really works well together,” Powers said. “Sometimes so much is going on at once that it makes for magical things happening. CAM (Contemporary Art Museum) is an anchor and a leader. Getting a museum to come in is serious because you know they’re not going anywhere. There was already a good energy down here and now there’s a facility doing serious contemporary art. The district also has tech startups, locally owned businesses, artist studios. It’s a real hub for emerging artists, showing lots of different avenues for being an artist or creative person.”
From that first handful of participating galleries 24 years ago, downtown Raleigh’s First Friday has grown to more than 100 art galleries, restaurants, bars and retailers. Judging by traffic snarls and parking issues, First Friday is well into its growing-pains stage.
“We almost get more people than we need coming in now,” said The Mahler’s Parnell. “It used to be a way to get people to come in and see art, and now it’s become more like entertainment. We’re open for First Friday, but we try not to have our openings then. Still, it’s great to see what it’s become and we’re happy to be part of it. I lived in New York before coming here, and my partner and I came downtown because we wanted to be at the center of it. That was 1985, and we were too blind to see there really was no downtown here.
“But there is now.”