Buy Photo

John Harte / Special to The Californian

Change is coming to First Friday. The Arts Council of Kern is overseeing the artwalk, requiring artists to pay a fee and select a space as part of the move to better organize the monthly downtown event.

First Friday, the popular monthly arts festival, has become the victim of its own success, said its founder, prompting changes for the sidewalk artists who line the streets of downtown selling their wares.

"What has happened, it got basically out of my control," said Don Martin of Metro Galleries, who started the festival in 2007. "People selling knock-off items or old books or CDs. I would tell them to leave and I would come back into the gallery and they would set up again. People trying to sell food. It was getting like a flea market. It isn't what it should be out there."

But the announcement of the changes -- which include fees and restrictions on what items can be sold -- has created confusion for some artists, prompting an outpouring of concern on social media.

Bearing the brunt of the criticism has been the Arts Council of Kern, which is behind the push for change.

David Gordon, the agency's new executive director, will hold a meeting Monday to address questions and concerns from the arts community about the new guidelines.

Until now, artists had set up shop on the sidewalk of the art walk -- on 19th and Eye streets -- on a first-come, first-served basis. They paid no fees and did not request approval from the city to sell their goods on public sidewalks, though a permit would normally be required.

For the first time, participating artists will be required to apply for a permit, select a designated space on the art walk's "footprint" and pay a fee, ranging from $25 per month to $180 for one year.

The fees, Gordon said, will be managed by the arts council and will help cover permits, liability insurance, marketing, bookkeeper and staff time, artist scholarships and additional security.

Artist Erwin Ledford, who has participated in First Friday since 2011, expressed reservations over the changes.

"First Friday was always a positive event for artists because it offered a platform where the artist had nothing to lose by participating," he said via email.

"I think that aspect brought out a number of talented artists who now show regularly who may not have initially felt secure enough to come out and share their art."

Sara Drennan, who has participated for years in both First Friday and other local street fairs, said she wants to know where the fees will go.

"I walk away (from First Friday) sometimes not having sold anything. I've donated time and my generous effort to contribute to an event. I'd like to see the same funds being put back into the arts community.

The push for regulation

Many questions will be addressed at Monday's meeting, including what's driving the move to organize vendors and secure permits, as well as what kinds of items can be sold.

First Friday, launched in August 2007, has grown from a loose gathering of a few businesses and artists promoting their work to a teeming collection of art booths, nearly spilling into the street.

Martin said that as the festival has grown, so too have the number and types of items being offered for sale, a development that has deviated from the original intent for First Friday.

"I started getting a lot of complaints from business owners downtown and from some of the artists that had been involved for so long," Martin said. "The sidewalks were getting very congested."

Becky Reddig, who has worked at House Ear Clinic for 15 years, said she had trouble earlier this year with a vendor setting up early between the light pole and the handicapped parking space in front of the 19th Street business.

"Our handicapped spot is right in front of our door. A lot of our patients use it. They can't maneuver that curb. She set up right there."

As vendors and complaints multiplied, Martin said he knew the event would draw the attention of the city, which before now had not enforced the requirement for an event permit and business license for artists selling on city sidewalks.

"The city has been kind enough to look the other way. ... They have been very, very supportive. I started a warning to local artists a year ago, saying you guys need to help me with this. The city will come out and say no more."

City Councilman Terry Maxwell, who represents the art walk area of downtown, was not aware when reached for comment Wednesday that the art vendors were operating without permits but said he sees the wisdom in the effort to organize the event.

"We (city government) don't have the personnel to send out to canvass the city," Maxwell said.

"But if somebody complains, that gives us the impetus to go out. I don't know if anybody has or not."

Martin said Gordon approached him about the arts council taking an active role in organizing the participating artists.

"He and I started talking about the art walk, how can we make it better," Martin said. "David started putting the project together."

Gordon said he's been working with Drew Sharples, a city financial investigator, to secure the appropriate permits.

"He was more than happy and relieved that someone, the ACK, me, was going through the right channels to make this event law-abiding," Gordon said.

"Drew walked me through the paperwork so that it would be properly permitted."

Sharples, who has been handling permits for the city for about two years, said he had not had any discussion of the monthly downtown event before meeting with Gordon.

"This was the first time First Friday came to my attention."

Sharples estimated about 90 percent of city events go through the permitting process and said he didn't know why no permits had been secured for First Friday in the past. He noted that Gordon had not submitted his own paperwork as of Wednesday.

As for the artists, they say they're reserving judgment until they learn more.

"I still look forward to attending the meeting and seeing how many other artists show up, see what other concerns and questions people are bringing," Drennan said.

Regardless of the outcome, Ledford remains optimistic about the thriving arts community.

"As long as we have passionate artists who work hard at their craft, the future will be bright for Bakersfield whether or not First Friday works out the way we want it to."