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Where have you been all our lives

As First Friday achieved rumbling liftoff in 2002, the art, music and spontaneous street scene beguiled me, but something else bemused. It was who showed up. Strangers. In my clumsy orbit around the scene years previous, I’d grown accustomed to seeing, and expecting to see, familiar faces at exhibit receptions, poetry gatherings, various cultural huddles — arts supporters, they were called, which always made the event in question sound vaguely like a wake — solemn, obligatory and therapeutic. (And their guests they always towed along in order to expose them to the arts, as though they were giving vaccinations.) At First Friday, I gazed upon these strangers and wondered: Where have you been all our life?

Familiar faces are wonderful, but these fresh bodies popping up at First Friday struck a chord of great promise. Clearly, the new bash had tapped some kind of deep hunger for a regular, but freewheeling and improvised, community gathering centered on the arts. (Okay, free wine helped.) Over the past 12 years, First Friday has evolved from a monthly arts uprising to a professionalized mothership supported by a nonprofit foundation. Of course, there are plenty of other laudable cultural movements that have done the hard work of growing up in Southern Nevada — Nevada Ballet Theatre, the Las Vegas Philharmonic, our own Nevada Public Radio, the library system, the City of Las Vegas’ cultural machinery. But for me, First Friday was the event where I had the pleasure of seeing, live and in person, individual hungers catalyze into sociable community.

If only every arts organization had it so easy finding a serendipitous and enthusiastic market to tap. I say that half-facetiously. More often than not, culture-making takes work, and I’m talking about the work that remains after the work is done: outreach and education. That’s why I was particularly pleased with new Las Vegas Philharmonic Music Director Donato Cabrera’s insights that underscore the importance of education to the arts. The kind he’s talking about is distinct from the issue of arts funding for schools. His take, instead, entails aggressive outreach by the arts organizations themselves to identify, attract and cultivate new audiences. In his profile ( page 46), Cabrera suggests a few tactics for growing new audiences for the arts among our significant Asian-American and Hispanic populations. For instance, he points out that, in San Francisco, the San Francisco Symphony regularly performs material that celebrates traditions other than the Western classical canon, whether it’s a Chinese New Year festival concert or a musical evocation of Dia de los Muertos. Or, consider the challenge generationally: How do we inspire coming generations to embrace music, dance and art? Cabrera proposes family concerts in which everyone from grandparents to infants is invited and encouraged to listen.

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The how is less important than the provocative philosophical underpinning: The job of the artist isn’t just to make art, it’s to make the audience. “Pure” artists may balk at that gauntlet, but even those artists have to admit they have a stake: If the painting hangs on the wall, if the violins surge, if the dancer leaps, and nobody’s there to witness it, is it really art? Alchemy is necessary; audience matters. Let’s continue to fill the place with strangers, newcomers, fresh minds. They’re tomorrow’s familiar faces.

As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.