This year, Boise's First Thursday will place 20 waxy candles on its birthday cake. Downtown Boise has changed markedly since the first packs of permed and acid-washed art lovers started scampering down Old Boise's concrete sidewalks seeking culture and a splash or three of wine. A few spaces—Brown's Gallery, Gallery 601, R. Grey Gallery and Boise Art Museum—have remained First Thursday pillars, flinging open their doors after hours nearly 240 times over the last two decades.
"I was on the board of directors for the Downtown Business Association way back when they used to do a thing called Streets For People," remembers Robert Grey Kaylor, co-owner of R. Grey Gallery. "It was like a block party where they'd block off Main Street in Old Boise from the Capitol on down to Sixth Street."
Unfortunately, explains Randall Brown owner of Brown's Gallery, Streets for People wasn't popular with downtown businesses.
- photo by Joshua Roper
- Why the frown, Randall Brown? Your gallery's renowned around town for its sweet throwdowns.
"They advertised it as a huge free event, but ... during that event, they had higher instances of loitering, vandalism, shoplifting, all kinds of stuff," says Brown. "Merchants were saying 'this is not good for business.'"
So, downtown merchants started looking to host another event. For a few years prior to the launch of First Thursday, a collection of downtown galleries had started doing monthly gallery strolls. The strolls had proven to be a boon for downtown galleries, attracting the well-behaved artsy crowd instead of the loud, raucous free-seekers. With similar First Thursday-style events popping up in other Northwest cities, the DBA saw a way to combine the all-inclusive excitement of Streets For People with the more grown-up, business-friendly gallery stroll.
"First Thursday is a very common promotion throughout downtowns in the [United States]—some are called First Friday, First Thursday, Last Friday, etc. Each community is different, but the promotion is essentially the same," explains Karen Sander, director of the DBA.
Under the First Thursday umbrella, restaurants, banks and retail stores could grab a chunk of the art-stroll scene, hanging work from local artists on their walls and offering special promotions.
"Faust, the furniture accessories store ... Lavender/Kandor and R. Grey Gallery were really the ones that pushed First Thursday along with some restaurants," explains Kaylor. "Other retailers looked at us and started saying, 'Wow, they're getting real business on First Thursday,' so then they started doing it."
Zoom forward a decade or so, and the First Thursday scene downtown was thriving. Store and gallery owners had started coming up with all sorts of zany promotions to get people in their doors.
"We did a big Harley show for First Thursday once, and that was pretty cool," remembers Christine Otradovec, gallery director at Gallery 601. "They shut off the street and ... everybody could enter their bike to win a prize. That was in 1999. Believe it or not, I think they had like 36 or 38 different bikes."
BAM, in addition to showcasing a smattering of art from world-famous artists, archaeologists and architects like Faith Ringgold, Dale Chihuly, Kent Weeks and Will Bruder, also instituted Art Talks as a part of its First Thursday programming. These talks provide visitors with an opportunity to hear professional Idaho artists—like Charles Gill, Andrea Merrell, Lorin Humphreys, Deborah Hardee and Kirsten Furlong—elaborate on the work they have showing.
"The Art Talk program has probably had the most public feedback in the form of growth. At one time, we had small audiences for the program, but it grew to the point that we could no longer offer a sit-down lecture because we did not have a space large enough to accommodate the growing numbers of attendees," explains Melanie Fales, executive director at BAM.
Another wildly popular First Thursday event was the night the Japanese consul general came to Brown's Gallery on First Thursday. The gallery was packed with local politicians and schmoozers, with a line snaking out the front door and down the block. Brown laughingly suggests that the event's popularity had more to do with Shige catering than anything else. And though meeting the Japanese consul general was a high point for Brown, in his mind, there's one specific First Thursday that trumps the hundreds of others.
"One time, a woman came in who was showing some interest in a bronze I did of a mermaid ... I made her a deal and she came back later and I opened champagne to celebrate the purchase of the artwork. She said, 'I really haven't had dinner yet, I really can't have any more to drink.' So I took her out to dinner and we ended up getting married," remembers Brown.
But stories aside, by the mid-2000s, First Thursday was stumbling into town red nosed and rosy cheeked. Many blame the hordes of wine-sauced citizens descending downtown on media portrayals dubbing the event a boozy free-for-all. So in the summer of 2006, the Idaho State Police cracked down on the free firewater.
"Many business owners were unaware that the permits were required and have since worked out partnerships with many wineries and downtown bars/restaurants to provide the service," says Sander.
Now, almost three years later, First Thursday still continues to thrive, albeit, slightly less sauced. Each month, around 50 downtown merchants hold First Thursday events, with a trolley carting weary-soled art lovers to more far-off destinations. For the four spaces that have been participating since First Thursday's first wobbly steps, the event is most about drawing new people downtown.
"We often hear from folks that First Thursday was their first time visiting downtown and that they had no idea of the depth and variety of stores available," says Sander.
While galleries might not sell a ton of art on First Thursday, the event provides exposure and helps de-snobify the art world's image.
"Art can be kind of an intimidating subject," notes Brown. "[First Thursday] just gives people an opportunity to wander into a gallery without being swarmed upon by salespeople or intimidated by what's on the wall."
Even with bleak economic times still ahead, these four First Thursday pillars all plan on sticking around for at least another decade, if not two.
"Nobody likes to see another business going out," says Brown. "I think we really need to focus on the positive, and I think the First Thursday is one of those positive experiences."