First Friday Santa Cruz

Changing Spaces – The History of First Friday Santa Cruz 

Changing Spaces – The History of First Friday Santa Cruz 

by Bree Karpavage

Tenacious – resilient – creative – a few words describing the beginnings of First Friday Santa Cruz 20 years ago. We recently had the opportunity to connect with Kirby Scudder, one of the original founders of First Friday and all around Santa Cruz art scene legend, and talk to him about the inspiration, creativity and passion behind First Friday and how it became one of the most popular art events in Santa Cruz County.

“People said it would never work,” states Kirby in his first thought describing how First Friday got started. But for every nay-sayer there were five more enthusiastic artists, businesses and partners, along with the City who loved the idea, even though that idea wasn’t exactly clear. As a New York artist implant, Kirby had established a name for himself downtown by occupying empty storefronts during the recession and taking up temporary residence showing his artwork. Tenacious with a capital T – Kirby was never afraid to ask for what he wanted and throw his artwork and his ideas on any and every wall he could to see if they would stick. 

This tenacity led him to meet his future creative business partner in crime, Chip and also Emily Riley, mayor at the time – two key players in launching First Friday in 2004. The event began in temporary spaces downtown, and eventually started popping up in various businesses – this all before there was even an art gallery in downtown Santa Cruz. In fact, over the course of 12 years, Kirby occupied nine different spaces downtown, big and small, filling all of them with local art, creating temporary galleries. “The whole point is to think out of the box…at the time everybody was so inside the box,” says Kirby.

First Friday began as a self-guided tour much like it is now, but with fewer venues, no social media, and only a printed map. It took the monthly art tour a long time to catch on with the public, exhausting Kirby and Chip and leading them to try it as a guided tour, meeting up with folks at random downtown locations and walking venue to venue. Interest piqued, the crowd grew and Kirby says, “A light bulb came on. This is a social event, this is what people want.”

Later in 2008 the “Cow Bus” was born, an old van that Kirby painted with black and white cow spots. Starting at the Tannery, art-lovers would meet up and catch a ride around downtown to all the venues for $5. The creative marketing stunt also attracted people to the new Tannery Arts Center, helping put it and First Friday on the map, essentially creating an art scene in Santa Cruz. First Friday took off from there, growing in popularity and the Cow Bus eventually moved on to further its career in the arts at Burning Man. 


What does First Friday Santa Cruz mean to Kirby? He says it’s all about emerging artists. “It’s for the underdog, those who don’t have all the resources and gallery connections. It’s about giving these artists the opportunity to show their work.” And 20 years later First Friday continues to make connections and provide opportunities for local artists to be seen and supported.

Inspired by emerging artists and the roots of First Friday we are excited to partner with Kirby Scudder and Radius Gallery to present our 20th Anniversary Exhibit, “Changing Spaces” on June 7. SAVE THE DATE and come celebrate 20 years with us!

We currently have an open call for art submissions until May 5. Local artists are invited to apply! Find the application here.

“Changing Spaces”
Celebrating 20 Years of First Friday Santa Cruz
Radius Gallery at the Tannery Arts Center
Friday – June 7, 2024 | 5-9pm

Big thanks to Kirby Scudder for sharing his stories with us and to both Kirby and Chip for being the brains and ambition behind First Friday Santa Cruz. Your labor of love continues to be nurtured and loved by all who experience it.