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First Friday Art Walk in Downtown: A Somewhat Soggy Disappointment

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However you may feel about the monthly fair/fiasco that is Wynwood's Second Saturday, there is no denying the event's immense popularity. So it's hardly surprising that art-fair impresarios David and Lee Ann Lester decided to expand the tried and tested monthly art-walk concept to another week and another setting throughout Miami's streets: downtown.

As the organizers at the helm of International Fine Art Expositions, the Lesters were the minds behind Art Miami (which they sold long ago) and successful art fairs from Hong Kong to Dallas. And while their newest art event, First Friday Art Walk, has the potential to supersede Second Saturdays in Wynwood or the Coconut Grove Arts Festival as the city's biggest and best local art fair, that was not the case this Friday.

See also:
- First Friday Art Walk Guide: All the Culture on Display at Downtown's Inaugural Event
- Downtown Miami's New First Friday Art Walk: Free Culture by Land and by Sea

The Lesters did an incredible job of organizing more than 150 artists and their varied bodies of work in the short span of two weeks, but the cards just didn't fall in their favor this weekend, for reasons both within and without their control.

For one, after weeks and weeks of almost perfectly cool, dry days, the First Friday Art Walk was accompanied by hours of waxing and waning downpours and drizzles, the bane of any South Florida foot-bound festival's existence. With some of the galleries hosting events only until the early evening, there were entire collections that might as well not even have existed to the finicky average Miami pedestrian, who fears the horrid prospect of melting in the rain and holds firm in his safe, dry abode.

Another problem that First Friday faced was the fact that it wasn't quite an art "walk." Whereas Wynwood's monthly fair features galleries that stand door-to-door down one main drag of less than a mile, the downtown iteration spread 13 galleries over 21 blocks from NE 18th Street to SE Third Street, and from Biscayne Bay all the way to NW First Avenue. The locales of the individual exhibits were specifically chosen so that all the venues were within two blocks of the trolley or the Metromover. But still, First Friday organizers, you must know your audience.

Miamians have a firm, visceral distaste for the local public transit system, with its pathetically anemic infrastructure and its unerring general ineptitude for running on time. So the idea of spending one's Friday night waiting on the still-alien novelty trolleys rather than simply strolling a couple of doors over to the next gallery or wandering 40 feet to a lot full of taco trucks elicits a less than overjoyed and overenthusiastic response from most denizens. That response was well illustrated by the downtown sidewalks, which were about as empty as you could picture them on a soggy Friday night.

But the greatest pitfall of the inceptive First Friday was that far too few people knew it existed -- and those who showed up weren't all that sure where precisely it existed. While I applaud the Lesters' efforts and what they were able to put together in such a short span of time, there was nowhere near enough done to let the masses know there was a new art walk in town. The signage around downtown was minimal, and informative pamphlets or maps were scarce. I received a map only a half-hour before the galleries' doors closed at 10 p.m. while I was still aboard the Seafair, a $40 million yacht and floating art exhibition and one of the real focal points of First Friday.

If any portion of the weekend's first foray into a new monthly art fair should be seen as an ideal mold for how future First Friday's could succeed, it was the Seafair. The 228-foot, four-deck megayacht is almost impossible to miss as it hulks on the bay just beside the InterContinental Miami. Its stark white hull is emblazoned with glowing blue letters, and its open gangway invites you to see what's inside. And though the regal interior, which feels more like a set of corridors inside the White House than a giant boat, may not have been packed to the gills with Miami foot traffic, there was a buzz of excitement among the spectators as they took in the beautiful works of art, ranging from bejeweled peacocks to portraits painted on floppy disks to petrified wooden footstools.

Fortunately, the underwhelming turnout did not discourage exhibiting artists from participating in First Fridays to come. Rachel Dugger, who spoke with me amid her collection of handmade fine jewelry that she crafts from one-of-a-kind items and antiques she acquires in her travels, said she has no doubt that First Fridays will be a grand success as Miami's next art walk.

"The focus of the art scene has been shifting away from Wynwood and the Design District. The momentum is more and more palpable in downtown, I think. This is where it's happening now," Dugger said. "The Lesters are brilliant. They're always a step ahead of the game, and bringing this First Friday event to downtown is just another example of how true that is. I'm very excited to be a part of this in the coming months."

Let's hope she's right and that Friday, May 3, is a bit drier than April 5 was.

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