First Fridays Ypsilanti continues growth through community collaboration in its fifth season

First Fridays Ypsilanti (FFY)'s monthly self-guided art and culture walk in Ypsi has grown over the past five years from a few venues to a few dozen venues hosting free activities and displaying artwork.


On Friday evening, at least 34 local businesses will participate in the first FFY event of the 2018 season. Some of them will extend special offerings, like a tasting or a sale, while others will showcase local talent.


At Go! Ice Cream, 10 N. Washington St., a fundraiser benefiting the Neighborhood Theater Group will include poetry and music performances. Sidetrack Bar and Grill, 56 E. Cross St., will host a petting zoo featuring a miniature horse, a miniature pig, and goats from Painted Acres Farm and Rescue. The team from the PBS television program Under the Radar Michigan will go on a book signing and meet-and-greet tour at the Ypsi Real office, 106 W. Michigan Ave.; Bona Sera Underground, 200 W. Michigan Ave.; and Cultivate Coffee and Tap House, 307 N. River St.


Since 2013, FFY's goal has been to invite community members into the city's shopping and dining districts to enjoy themselves as they help support local artists and businesses on the first Friday of each month. FFY program director Elize Jekabson believes everyone finds their own value in FFY. But it's apparent the monthly events are mutually beneficial for residents who are looking for something to do, as well as artists and businesses that want to contribute to the community and benefit from a boost in clientele.


A few years before Sherri and Zachary Schultz owned Brick and Mortar Modern General Store, 21 E. Cross St., they frequented FFY events as residents. They say they it was exciting during the first season when only a few venues were involved, so it's been incredible to watch FFY grow to its current scale.


The Schultzes have tried to participate in every FFY event since Brick and Mortar opened in July because they realized from the start how much their new business can benefit from the increase in sales and foot traffic stimulated by the monthly events. The couple's shop has hosted artists and bands, and offered discounts, refreshments, and snacks. They'll hold a yard sale with deals on items from their personal collection on Friday.


"That little red can (that forms the base of FFY's makeshift signs) makes a big difference outside of the door because there are people who come out for First Fridays and they’re really looking for those venues that have something going on, whether they’re showcasing an artist or having a gallery sort of thing or music," Zachary Schultz says. "They’re really wanting to go to those businesses to experience something,"


FFY vice president Kayia Robinson has participated in FFY as a volunteer, an executive board member, and a business owner. She’s able to leverage her participation as the owner of Hinton Real Estate Group, 36 N. Washington St., to get other non-retail businesses and organizations to become FFY venues because she can share with them the benefits of getting involved. Since her business is an office and not a retail storefront, she typically sticks to displaying artwork.


"I strictly do it for community support and artist support. I believe in giving anyone who can fit in my venue a platform," Robinson says. "I totally take a backseat to what I’m doing for that particular day and that event. It’s a plus if I can get a (business) card out, but it’s not what it’s about for me."


Robinson has been able to build relationships with local artists, including Morgan Burgard, who will show her work at Hinton Real Estate for the second time on Friday. In addition to refreshments and conversation, the showing will offer the chance to interact with Burgard and her art, as well as purchase prints or get involved in the artist's Painting People Project. Burgard has displayed her artwork at several businesses around Ypsi since her initial foray into FFY with a showing at Cross Street Coffee in September.


"It was really nice to get into the First Fridays community because everyone is super supportive," Burgard says. "It’s so difficult to find somewhere to display your art for free, and the fact that all the businesses and the community come together to help people who want to pursue any sort of creative outlet (means they) can do so and share it."


What's new for FFY 2018


This season will feature some well-established businesses that haven't previously served as FFY venues but have definitely benefited from the increased traffic during the monthly events. Jekabson says FFY has always wanted Red Rock Downtown Barbecue and Maiz Mexican Cantina to join the effort, so she's excited they're getting involved. But the FFY team would still like to increase participation among the businesses on West Cross Street near Eastern Michigan University.


On June 1, the second annual Ypsi Pride will celebrate the LGBTQ community with activities and performances throughout two blocks of downtown Ypsi and on two stages. FFY is working on partnering with local performance group Boylesque to put on a drag show, and with Cultivate to set up a beer garden in conjunction with Bell's Brewery at YpsiPlanti Garden Supply, 16 S. Washington St. Jekabson says this year's Ypsi Pride will be "bigger and better and gayer" due to overwhelming interest in last year's inaugural event.


The sixth annual Festival of the Honey Bee will invite people to downtown Ypsi on Sept. 7 to celebrate honeybees with art, music, vendors, and bee-themed activities. Some of last year's festivities included beehive hairstyles from Betty Green Organic Beauty, a multimedia exhibition exploring humans' relationship with bees at 22 North Gallery, and honey lattes from Ziggy's.


FFY relies on sponsors and fundraisers to financially support its special events, like Ypsi Pride and Festival of the Honey Bee, and its general operations. In October the organization received a grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF) to develop methods for collecting headcounts and other data that may be employed to help FFY draw more sponsors.


AAACF is providing additional grant money for FFY to work with the NEW Center, 1100 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor, to explore the possibility of reorganizing as a nonprofit or another entity. Jekabson says the effort is meant to ensure the "prolonged sustainability" of FFY when its leadership eventually moves on.


How to get involved in FFY


Local businesses that want to participate should submit an online venue form before the 20th of the month prior to the next FFY event date to ensure they can be included on the art and culture walk map. The only requirement for participating venues is to provide space for entertainment or art. Venues are responsible for curating their own activities and booking artists or musicians, so they're basically able to host whatever is most conducive to their business or organization.


Artists who are interested in participating in FFY are encouraged to reach out to the venue where they'd like to perform or display their work. Artists can connect with venues seeking talent through a special Facebook group or reach out directly to the FFY team for help. The participating artists and venues come to an agreement on whether the venue would collect commission in the event of an art sale.


Volunteers are vital to FFY since the grassroots organization is almost entirely volunteer-based. Those who donate their time to FFY typically help with survey outreach, headcount, and special events. Residents who want to volunteer can reach out directly to FFY to express interest or can sign up online. They can also attend an FFY Volunteer Info Session at Cultivate, 307 N. River St., on April 11 and May 9 at 6 p.m. for more information.


Volunteer co-chair Debbie Ray initially got involved in FFY last year when she joined the steering committee for Ypsi Pride. She thinks the biggest benefits of volunteering with FFY are learning more about Ypsi and giving back to Ypsi. She believes the monthly events offer insight into the city's growing and diverse community and entertainment options.


"What First Fridays is trying to do is create this area where people from all walks of life … can be a part of this greater culture when it comes to art, when it comes to just checking out all of these amazing venues and all of their different initiatives," Ray says.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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