The First Friday art walk, one of the most popular recurring events in San Antonio, has been in various states of flux since March, when the pandemic made it difficult to promote and put on an event that is all about large, roving crowds.

The businesses and galleries that line South Alamo between South St. Mary’s and Probandt, the strip of Southtown on which most of the First Friday action occurs, have been closed or operating with limited capacity over the past seven months. Those that have been open have largely avoided any First Friday-specific activity, like extended hours, special openings, and promotions.

November’s First Friday, while still significantly scaled back and modified out of caution, saw more action than any since March.

Blue Star Arts Complex officially canceled First Friday festivities for the eighth month in a row, but a number of galleries and businesses opened for the occasion in some capacity, a few for the first time since March.

Blue Star Contemporary, which typically opens new exhibitions on First Fridays, has only opened one new exhibition since March: its Red Dot Art Sale, a yearly Blue Star fundraiser that has been open to the public since September.

While Blue Star did not offer extended First Friday hours, they have extended free admission, usually reserved for First Fridays, to all of their open hours, Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Despite attempting to stay somewhat out of the fray, Friday marked the first First Friday since the pandemic hit that Blue Star did what it typically does on First Fridays: open four new exhibitions. 

Blue Star Contemporary’s executive director Mary Heathcott said that the contemporary art space “did enjoy great traffic during the day, with visitors booking their appointments and adhering to our mask and distancing protocols.”

“We miss First Fridays as they were pre-COVID-19,” said Heathcott, “but like so much in life today, we are adjusting our expectations and traditions in order to provide a safe and comfortable space for experiencing art.”

Blue Star Contemporary Executive Director Mary Heathcott. Credit: Courtesy / Josh Huskin.

Heathcott also noted that Blue Star has “claimed its exterior signage site as a place for public art,” allowing some visitors to take in art without even having to enter the building. 

Flight Gallery, one of the more popular smaller galleries in Southtown over the years, was open for First Friday for the first time in months, showing an exhibition called Tell Me That it Haunts You Too by Angelica Raquel Martinez. The gallery enforced a capacity of 10 visitors at a time.

Gallery director and founder Justin Parr is excited about the exhibition but admitted that working with strict protocols in place is far from ideal.

Brick at Blue Star, known for its artisan markets and live music, is another spot that has been a popular First Friday stop but has not seen any action since the pandemic began. 

Brick’s general manager Elizabeth Ciarfeo said that even when regulations started to relax a bit toward the end of the summer, she didn’t felt comfortable opening the large indoor space of Brick for events or markets.

Last Sunday, however, with a plan in place that was largely put together by the Brick staff, Brick hosted its first Sunday market since March. Ciarfeo said that the market went well, that the “vibe was very positive and calm,” and that she considered it a successful dry run for First Friday.

The space opened again on Friday, at about 25 percent capacity, with a reduced number of vendors and a few live music acts. As far as precautions, in addition to limiting capacity, Ciarfeo said that Brick enforced masking, conducted entry point temperature checks, implemented modified space, and had its large bay door open to allow for greater circulation of air. Brick was open until midnight.

Brick’s Michael Julian said that Friday was “definitely much more subdued than a typical, pre-COVID First Friday,” noting that the space “never had more than 60-70 people in at once.”

Julian said that Brick draws more than 1,000 people on a First Friday under normal circumstances but on Friday saw about 200 visitors. Barring another spike in coronavirus numbers, Brick will plan to open again for December’s First Friday, he said.

Cyclists ride on South Alamo Street in front of the former church and future home of Frank in Southtown. Photo by Scott Ball.
Cyclists ride on South Alamo Street near downtown San Antonio during a First Friday in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Presa House, a spot that typically draws big crowds for the monthly art walk, has been offering its exhibitions online in 3D during the pandemic. Though the gallery opened a new exhibit, Ashley Perez’s Prey for Us, it was not open to the public for November’s First Friday.

Presa House’s Rigoberto Luna said that the gallery allowed the artist to invite friends and family to view the exhibit and that maybe a few others came through, all wearing masks and practicing distancing.

“It’s still super hard to figure out how to move forward, especially with the numbers on the rise again,” Luna said, noting that on Friday he did see significantly increased traffic in the general area.

For Heathcott, it is important that Blue Star get back to some semblance of its normal work. “Art plays a crucial role in helping our communities through challenging times like these.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.