October's First Fridays Art Walk may have been the last Friday for one of the eight-year-old event's most visually stunning spectacles.
A performance by G5 Fire, a troupe of fire jugglers that have set up shop on Marshall Street in front of Gallery5 for the past five years, was abruptly extinguished by a phalanx of off-duty Richmond police officers hired for security at the Oct. 2. event.
The enforcement was one of a number of dampers on the popular monthly Broad Street arts festival by city police and code-enforcement officials. The crackdowns began in the summer when the city's Community Assisted Public Safety team began investigating previously lax code enforcement at First Fridays participating galleries.
“I'm so pissed off,” says Tom Robinson, father of Gallery5 owner Amanda Robinson and the founder of its co-habitant fire museum. “They had six police officers descend on G5. Basically, for four and a half years, this has not been a problem.”
Mayor Dwight C. Jones has offered repeated support of First Fridays and has been working to preserve the event, even as he ensures that the law is properly enforced to bolster crowd safety.
“The gallery did NOT have a permit to close the lane,” Jones' spokeswoman Tammy Hawley writes in an e-mail. She says the shutdown of the fire jugglers was necessary and not arbitrary. “The lane closure on Marshall was discovered by a routine patrol of off-duty officers hired to provide security and safety for First Fridays.”
Hawley says the city is working with Gallery5 to possibly move the jugglers.
John Bryan, the new president of CultureWorks, a recently formed arts advocacy organization, witnessed the G5 shutdown, but declines to comment.
The October First Fridays event also marks the first under which galleries operated using the city's so-called Band-Aid occupancy permits, created specifically for the events. Hawley says the new permits were well received, but not all agreed that the rollout was smooth. A number of galleries did not apply for such permits, with some of the owners fearful of inviting visits from code-enforcement officers. Others that did received increased occupancies for between 30 and 60 people, far fewer than the typical flowing crowds of 100 or more.
Allen Entin, a volunteer at Art 6, worked the door at the gallery at 6 E. Broad St. on Friday and says the new system badly hurt attendance, drawing 700 visitors rather than the typical 3,000.
“People were just walking away in droves,” Entin says. “I wouldn't call that a success.”