Early on Friday evening in the back room of Sp@ce 224, a small storefront gallery on Allen Street, the artist Francisco Amaya was demonstrating his homemade harmonograph to a small crowd of Allentown denizens.
The strange contraption, a kind of 19th century parlor trick consisting of three concrete-weighted pendulums attached to a wooden arm with a pen at the end of it, spit out a series of beautiful and complex drawings, which were arrayed on the wall behind him.
A block away, photographer and gallery owner Michael Mulley sat in the front window of his small College Street Gallery, ready to greet gallerygoers trickling in from the cold or stumbling in from nearby bars. Farther up the street at Buffalo Big Print, a guitar player set up in the corner while owner Dale Schwalenberg wondered aloud whether he had bought enough wine for the coming crowd.
Over at Studio Hart, where a show of photographs by David Mitchell had just opened, the door chime rang every few seconds as patrons poured into the tiny space. A cacophony of familiar voices from Buffalo's art world filled the gallery space as owner Barbara Hart looked out from behind her desk.
Across the street at Indigo gallery, things were also heating up, with artists and gallerygoers mingling on the gallery's two levels for the opening of the eclectic group show “Bounty.” Crowds also trekked farther afield to see art shows at The Vault and Block Club on Main Street, the C.G. Jung Center and Mundo Images on Franklin, Starlight Studio on Delaware, the Benjaman Gallery farther up Elmwood Avenue and others.
It was all part of Allentown First Fridays, a monthly collaborative art event launched by a trio of gallery owners in 2009 that has gradually become indispensable both to the neighborhood and to Buffalo's visual arts community at large.
As these events go, Friday night's busy affair was a relatively mild one. Which should tell you something about the measured growth of the event, which only promises to become more popular as more Western New Yorkers learn about it.
Hart, who helped to launch the event with Indigo's Elisabeth Samuels and Buffalo Big Print's Schwalenberg, said the original idea was to model the event after established successful gallery walks in larger cities like Columbus, Ohio. “Buffalo is its own place, so it's not going to evolve any way that's pre-described,” she said.
Whereas Columbus' Short North neighborhood or Denver's Santa Fe arts district boast healthy, contiguous strips of retail and gallery spaces, Allentown's sluggish retail atmosphere is more challenging. Even so, the gallery event seems to add a new participant every couple of months, and the crowds always come out.
“We've gotten a little more financially stable,” Hart said. “Now things are more predictable, and we're learning to fund-raise a little more effectively. We're trying to get the business community to join us in participating.”
Too often in Buffalo, enthusiasm for promising projects can dwindle as organizers confront entrenched political or economic challenges. But First Fridays doesn't appear to be headed in that direction. At this point, though some amped-up marketing efforts wouldn't hurt – from something as easy as a Twitter account to larger-scale efforts like street signs – its organizers are happy to let the event grow organically.
“I don't think it's hit a plateau,” Samuels of Indigo gallery said. “In a city where it's challenging to have a brick-and-mortar gallery space, the more visibility you can get for the artwork that's around, the quality of the work that's here, the better.”