Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place in Norwich where you could walk around, hit two or three art galleries displaying works by local artists, get a bite to eat and perhaps catch a show? Well there is. Downtown Norwich has it all and it gets put on display the first Friday of every month. First Friday is a common term for various public events held in cities around the globe that occur on the first Friday of every month. These city-wide events may take on many purposes, including art gallery openings as well as social and political networking. Additionally, these are “see and be seen” events that serve as a block party or social gathering open to the general public. In many cities these events may involve pub crawling, street performances and more. First Friday Norwich began in October of 2000. It was organized under the direction of Lisa Marien of the Norwich Arts Council to kick off the opening of the Donald Oat Theatre and the NAC Gallery. More recently First Friday Norwich has gotten a facelift and serves to help support Economic Development in the City.
First Friday Better Than Ever
Recently a new group has gotten together to bring First Friday Norwich back and better than ever! Representatives from the Norwich Arts Council, Reliance House and Wauregan Gallery as well as outside agencies like Artreach, The Norwich Rose and Norwich Community Development Corporation gather to plan upcoming First Friday Activities. The key is making sure people know what is happening and where. To get the word out the group has started a website FirstFridayNorwich.com which is updated monthly with gallery exhibits, musical events, theatre productions, movies and places you can get a bite to eat or grab a cold beer. There is also a facebook page facebook.com/FristFridaysNorwich where participants post things going on at their business. “Being on the First Friday committee is fun and inspiring,” says Becca Atkins of Artreach. “I enjoy the positive energy of the group. There is some great brainstorming going on, followed by action, and I am excited about the future of the arts in Downtown Norwich.”
First Friday Art Tour
One of the first activities this committee did as a group was to host a Walktober event with Last Green Valley ‘First Friday Art Tour”. What is great anout Downtown Norwich is that the venues are all relatively close together and make for an enjoyable stroll. The tour began at Chacers Bar and Grill on Franklin Street where participants had a cold beverage and a delicious bite to eat while listening to acoustic guitarist Matthew Pirie. They moved on walking past the Spirit of Broadway Theatre and were able pick up brochures about upcoming shows and stopped in at Billy Wilsons Aging Still on Broadway to listen to guitar and singing by Ronald LaBonte. The group crossed the street to the Norwich Arts Council to view the showing of In the Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness, then down the street to the Reliance House Gallery, over to the Wauregan Gallery (also featuring In the Pink artwork where all proceeds went to the Breast Health Task Force of Southeastern CT) and finished off at the Harp and Dragon on Main Street. As well as learning about all the treasures Downtown has to offer, participants learned about the history of the buildings along the way. Most of fourteen participants were from outside of Norwich, two from as far away as Vermont. The attendees had a great time, enjoyed the galleries and many of them had dinner downtown after the event. “First Friday is one of the better evenings of the month to come to Downtown,” says Paul Siefert of Billy Wilson’s Aging Still. “It brings arts and culture to the City and you get a flavor for what the Downtown has to offer.”
The Norwich Arts Center or NAC was originally founded as the Norwich Arts Council in 1987 by a group of local artists and patrons who were inspired by the area’s possibilities. In 1995 they purchased 60-64 Broadway which they had been leasing as a gallery space for NAC and regional artists and turned the third floor space into the Donald Oat Theater. Their mission is to inspire and provide community affordable music, arts and education to the Greater Norwich Region in partnership with others interested in strengthening the fabric of the region. With the addition of the theater and the Norwich Arts Council’s Gallery on the first floor, Norwich Arts Council became the Center for the Arts in Norwich offering art, music and theatrical productions on Broadway in downtown. In preparation for their 2000-2001 season the committee was challenged to make downtown Norwich a destination point for the Norwich residents. The long standing Norwich Arts Council Gallery opening on the first Friday of each month, featuring a different NAC Cooperative artist, seemed to be the logical partnership. In October of 2000 “First Friday at the NAC” became a reality. The arts council combined the opening at the NAC Gallery with its initial jazz offering in the Donald L. Oat Theater. The music event was titled “First Friday Coffeehouse”. Since conception NAC has featured Grammy Award winning jazz musicians from all over the country as well as local bands and groups.
The NAC gallery hosts some amazing artists. Carol Dunn is an Elected Artist at the gallery as well as a First Friday Committee member and was featured on the December cover of Ink Magazine. She was also recently commissioned to help enhance, through art, Hotel Chandler in New York City. Matthew Cassar another of NAC’s artists had a January showing at the gallery. Matthew who has had showings as far away as Shanghai, China draws inspiration from the Dark ages as well as the Renaissance period. These artisits as well as the others that show at the Norwich Arts Center should not be missed!
Reliance House, Inc. is a non-profit mental health organization that has been located in downtown Norwich since 1976. Throughout the years, the agency has contributed to the versatility of the city by providing a variety of evolving mental health services along with community based businesses such as a thrift store, laundromat, landscaping services and a restaurant. Most recently, downtown interactions take the form of a monthly open Gallery for Norwich First Fridays. The Gallery originally developed as a means to showcase art created by Reliance House service recipients as facilitated by ARTWorks creative therapy sessions. By opening the Gallery for First Friday events, new partnerships and networks were established, thus expanding the vision and purpose of the Reliance House Gallery. Dedicated to the success of First Fridays, Reliance House employees have assisted with the rejuvenation of the First Friday Committee along with other local interested parties. Currently, the monthly showings consist of works created not only by agency members and staff but by budding and established local artists as well. To encourage all who are interested to participate, use of the space is free of charge and supported by on-site staff for the evening of the event. “The Gallery opens the door to share in the arts but additionally provides a gateway to talk about the services Reliance House has to offer and share our collective community goals,” says Carrie Dyer of Reliance House. For more information, contact Carrie at [email protected] or visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/RelianceHouse.
Recent showings at the Reliance House Gallery have featured Artreach, Inc., a non-profit that promotes recovery for adults with psychiatric disorders through creativity, had a beautiful Holiday Wreath Sale in December. The January artist was Rick Sicard who also has a painting included in the January 25th showing at the Hygenic in New London.
The Gallery at the Wauregan opened two years ago and is owned and operated by Dan Topalis a Norwich born artist who has had shows at the Southern Allegany Museum, Philadelphia Cultural Society, the Agora Gallery NYC and the Hygienic in New London just to name a few. He wanted to create a place for people in the community. The gallery does not charge fees of any sort, or judge the work. “If an artist sells work they get 100% of the sales,” says Toplais “the gallery takes nothing. The gallery gives an opportunity for artists who would otherwise not be able to show work.” He runs the gallery on his own with some help from volunteers. His art is displayed in the gallery and draws his inspiration from society. “Portraits are inspired by people. I just pick the one to me with the story in their face. My new ‘Orbs’ series just comes from my head.” His gallery offers a glimpse into how the arts can help transform the Downtown by helping to fill formally vacant spaces.
The Gallery at the Wauregan features many artists work giving them a launching pad to their own shows. In December Topalis featured a painting of Rick Sicard’s and helped him launch a private show in the Reliance House Gallery in January. Another artist featured at the Waureagan Gallery is pottery by Elizabeth Braddock which can also be purchased through the gallery and is not to be missed.
What First Friday Means for Norwich
“Fun events, such as Norwich’s First Fridays, provide the city with an opportunity to reveal itself in a creative, positive light,” says Norwich Community Development Vice President Jason Vincent. “In doing so, there is a chance to change some of the perceptions and misconceptions that people have about the city. Attendees will find plenty of parking, the event is safe, and it is a fun and festive atmosphere. All of those aspects can help the city build momentum in transforming the functionality of downtown from a place of business, to a place of vitality.” And there is plenty of parking, with 6 parking garages downtown and 520 on street parking spots, Downtown Norwich can accommodate large crowds of revilers, but for Norwich First Friday could mean more. Communities across the country have begun to realize that investing in the arts can play a big role in economic growth. These investments produce both short -term and long-term benefits, for example those who attend arts events spend money in the community at both the art showing and related activities such as going to a local restaurant or bar, having an effect on local employment and income which leads to increased tax revenue. A longer-term benefit would be that the arts generally attract highly skilled workers to an area which helps to raise the income levels in a community.
Future of First Friday Norwich
Looking to the future, the First Friday Committee meets every three weeks at one of the partner locations to talk about upcoming events and work together to make future First Friday great. They currently list all of the downtown eating establishments on their website but are planning on meeting with the downtown restaurant and bar owners to figure out how to best tie them into the First Friday festivities. They are also interested in finding spaces Downtown other art groups from Norwich could use for the evening of First Friday to bring other art forms to the event as well as make Downtown Norwich a destination once again for patrons of the arts as well as individuals just looking to have an exciting evening out. What is certain for First Friday Norwich is that the future is looking bright. People who rarely came down for First Fridays in the past are becoming regulars and there are more new people every month. One point the group wants people to keep in mind is that if you happen to miss the First Friday event; the galleries maintain the exhibit all month long can be seen at your leisure or again and again. For more information about First Friday Norwich visit their website or like them on Facebook. Events are updated monthly and other activities outside of First Friday are listed on the calendar on the website.