In the early 1990s, a group of Old City artists and gallery owners trying to figure out a way to better publicize their burgeoning community brought up an idea from Seattle that would help transform the neighborhood.

Heidi Nivling recalls they were at Richard Rosenfeld’s gallery for an Old City Arts Association meeting. Rick and Ruth Snyderman, owners of Snyderman-Works Galleries, and Jimmy Clark had recently been to the Northwest city and saw on the first Thursday of the month the city’s art galleries near the famous Pike Place Market stayed open late, attracting large crowds.

So in Old City, First Friday was born, 25 years ago this spring. Thousands now routinely attend, and they come from all over the area and country. Every so often, they even come from foreign countries.

But as the crowds and participants for First Fridays continue to grow, the gallery owners hope the events’ roots and Old City’s art community won’t be forgotten.

“We shouldn’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Nivling said. “I think the city has realized for a while that there’s a huge draw and huge benefit to the city of Philadelphia from these galleries and design places that are here.”

In the 1980s, Old City was like much of Center City in that it was relatively cheap. It was unlike much of Center City in that it offered space. Old industrial sites were being converted into lofts where young artists had room to work. Larry Becker needed space for commercial framing, his side job, especially after he earned an important job from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So he and Nivling, his partner, moved to Old City in 1984 and soon started a gallery, Larry Becker Contemporary Art.

They joined Rosenfeld, who moved to the neighborhood in 1978, and Bruce Keiser, who moved there in 1973 and sold handmade furniture with Paul Newman at Keiser-Newman. Keiser rented an entire four-story building for $175 a month.

So yes, the rent was good. The problem was the foot traffic. Old City was known for its historical sites and attracted a fair amount of tourists, but its population was 80 people in 1970 and 300 in 1980. By the end of the 80s, the population was around 2,000. An influx of artists and young professionals helped the neighborhood grow and yet few people knew about it. Thus the need for a marketing plan. 

Almost immediately, First Friday helped bring the bigger crowds and more unity for the galleries. They stayed open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., with Friday becoming the go-to day for openings. There was no backing from the city or deep-pocketed agency. First Fridays were organic. 

Those first couple years, Ruth Snyderman remembers, the attendees were limited mostly to serious art collectors and other artists. A 1991 Inquirer article publicizing First Fridays a few months after they began described what can best be described as an eclectic crowd: “Dress is as informal and funky as you can manage. While many First Friday patrons do come straight from work, often that work seems to involve slathering oil on canvas in nearby lofts. Suits and ties are rare; walking shoes are essential; and a neo-’60s tie-dyed look predominates. Weird earrings also help.”

By the mid-’90s, the rest of the city seemed to pay attention. Crowds could go into the thousands, and sometimes then-Mayor Ed Rendell would stop by (albeit probably not wearing the “weird earrings”).

“It really did help the neighborhood,” Nivling said. “Other galleries followed, foot traffic followed, restaurants followed. We had restaurants calling us and asking, ‘what is this thing?’ Real estate people liked it, of course. It’s always been a very friendly thing.”

Old City’s population is now about 3,400, according to Census estimates. First Fridays have changed, too. The serious buyers are likely to skip the Friday crowds, and galleries rarely host openings on Friday nights. The wine and cheese offered the first few years to everyone is now limited to friends or contributors in the back of the galleries.

“We miss having some of that little bit higher-end art and antique-buying crowd,” said Arthur Meckler, owner of Reform, a store that sells vintage furnishings, “but some of them are still there. The base has been broadened.” 

Ruth Snyderman said, “It’s still successful in that way as far as everyone enjoying it, just not as successful financially as much for everybody.”

Old City’s rise in popularity has been a positive and a negative for the artists. More people know about the galleries, but rent now exceeds what many artists can afford. The lucky ones are those like Ruth and Rick Snyderman, who bought their buildings long ago when the price was still reasonable. Ruth Snyderman said at least five galleries closed in the last year. There were personal reasons, but rent made a difference, too.

Snyderman said some galleries considered not participating in First Fridays anymore. Owners wondered whether it was worth it financially. But they decided to keep the tradition going, wanting to make a few changes like managing crowds better so attendees can easily reach the galleries.

“When you turn 25,” Snyderman said, “it’s time to grow up a little bit.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...