story by Roland Gilmor
photos by Joe Graziano
Time was that the sight of a woman twirling a pair of flaming batons on Nu‘uanu Avenue just wasn’t normal. Back then, the downtown/Chinatown area largely emptied of nonresidents come sundown; neighboring Hotel Street was looked upon as a red light district and fire was usually just a sign of trouble.
These days though, it’s common to see hundreds of people wandering the evening streets, and fire-spinners are just another part of the scene. At least, this is the way of it on the first Friday of each month, when the downtown galleries open new exhibitions and extend their hours into the evening.
“Some nights I look around and think, ‘Where do they all come from?’” says Kim Coffee-Isaak with a laugh when asked if she’s surprised at how popular First Friday has become. As managing director of The Arts at Marks Garage collective, Coffee-Isaak helped establish the once-a-month event in 2004. She has seen the evening grow from a low-key, self-guided gallery tour into something approaching a free-form block party, with an ever-evolving cast of street performers sharing the space with roaming packs of art buffs and random hipsters.
All of which leads to a small irony: With hundreds of people passing through a gallery on any given night, the art itself runs the risk of getting lost in the crowd.
“It’s something of a happy problem for the galleries,” says Coffee-Isaak. “We started First Friday as a means of bringing focus to the arts, but these days it’s becoming more of a street scene—so we still want people to know that we’re here five, six and seven days a week, not just on First Fridays.”
In either case, the art-walk portion of the evening generally runs through 9 p.m. each month, with maps available at most downtown businesses and galleries.