Last Fridays

Crowds gather on West King Street during a recent Last Fridays event in Hillsborough.

Hillsborough’s Last Fridays Art Walk has, over the more recent past, offered visitors a feast of creative talents — a buffet of arts, with music, visual and literary arts neatly portioned for the community and out-of-towners. Tour downtown’s half-dozen or so art galleries and then gather on the old Orange County Courthouse lawn for music. Restaurants filled their tables, inside and out.

The pandemic virtually squeezed the life out of the arts scene, and many local artists suffered without opportunities for in-person performances and exhibitions. The Hillsborough Arts Council mobilized, holding streaming events to aid a part of the community that was suddenly living up to the “starving artists” cliché. The HAC Writers Series was born to reach lovers of the literary arts who were staying safe in their homes. There was a mobile performance stage. Last Fridays Art Walks mostly took the year off.

As Covid-19 vaccinations have helped release much of the cooped up community, the Hillsborough Arts Council has made its primary focus reminding the town of its plethora of artistic ability. And central to that has been decentralizing events and spreading the love.

“In a general sense, the Arts Council has been trying to, from a program standpoint, focus energies on how we can leverage a little bit more strategic input to have greater economic impact,” said Joshua Collins, who is vice chair of the Hillsborough Arts Council Board of Directors. “You know it’s a community here. We realize how hard the pandemic was on our neighbors. These aren’t just random business owners. These are our neighbors. We’re looking at the arts to see how we can implement programs strategically to have an impact for these businesses.”

Anna Linvill, who is also on the Arts Council board and is co-chair of Last Fridays, reimagined the event in its current form.

Past Last Fridays involved touring downtown art galleries and a singular band at the old Orange County Courthouse with vendors at tables around the courthouse lawn. This year, HAC has worked in partnership with businesses, galleries and restaurants to extend the festival throughout downtown, and provide more opportunities to grow revenue.

Collins, who is founder of the Hillsborough-based marketing agency Digital Butler, can appreciate what it means to have the creative wing of a town intrinsically involved with the its businesses.

“As an entrepreneur, I’m passionate about supporting the businesses, and there’s no reason, with a little bit more thought, that we can’t make this transition to having something where, instead of coming and setting up a chair and staying for two, three hours at the courthouse, you go to three, four or five different places throughout the night,” Collins said. “The ripple effects and the potential impact to our local economy that that could have is a primary focus for us. At the end of the day it’s not just about a party, it’s about trying to build community through the arts. That’s our real goal as an arts organization.”

The change has has been multifold. Places like Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew, have musicians performing throughout the evening. Visual artists set up tables in front of businesses; buskers perform from a variety of locations. The arts council lists each participating business on its website, and adds their location on the interactive map of activities.

Collins said the response from the community and participating businesses has been extremely positive. The HAC gift shop is seeing stronger than ever sales; waiting lists for tables at restaurants; Yonder was Covid-guidelines-packed; the Colonial Inn had dozens of people on its lawn listening to music; Margaret Lane Art Gallery had crowds inside and out.

Because of this success, the HAC will likely keep the new model for Last Fridays going forward. “One thing I love about the group that we have on the board of the Arts Council, and our leadership team is we’re always looking for opportunities to improve,” Collins said. “It’ll probably evolve to some degree, but in an effort to be better for the town and the community we’re not going to go back to the courthouse lawn model.”

Another area the Hillsborough Arts Council is targeting is increasing the diversity of the artists it collaborates with, in hopes of being more inclusive and serve the entire community. Again, the Last Fridays events have offered a vehicle for moving in that direction.

For example, the Margaret Lane Gallery has been hosting music performances each month on their lawn. At a recent Last Fridays event, a bluegrass band, The Carolina Cut Ups, performed to an audience seated in folding chairs on the sidewalk. During the band’s set breaks, several African American poets stepped up to the mic and presented powerful spoken-word art.

“It’s a duality you don’t normally see together, but to see our community enjoying these two very different art deliveries or performances and styles and enjoying them together and everybody loved it,” Collins said. “It’s been a beautiful kind of evolution of Last Fridays, and we feel like we’ve doubled down on it after the first trial. We saw that it is having the opportunity to give more to each individual business.”

Poet William Davis, also known as Endlesswill (see related article), joined the Hillsborough Arts Council board of directors last year. He is also a former poet laureate for the town. Williams has helped the HAC elevate poets and the spoken word performances by attracting well-known and rising stars in the medium. During the pandemic, the Arts Council employed its traveling stage for musicians and poets alike. The mobility of the spoken word has continued with the reincarnation of Last Fridays, with performers moving from venue to venue, and during set breaks for musical performers.

“People come out for music, and this was a really brilliant way to blend those two things. The spoken word has like this passion and energy behind it,” Collins added.

Going forward, Collins said the Hillsborough Arts Council board is hoping to expand Last Fridays beyond downtown. It is already trying to pull areas of Nash Street, and is actively pursuing input from other businesses. Molly Thomas, a full-time employee who manages the HAC gift shop, reaches out each month to small businesses throughout Hillsborough for places to create partnerships and boost promotional. Thomas is also marketing HAC events to other outlets in Orange County.

Which leads into another area of growth the HAC board is hoping to nurture: paid staff. Through much of its existence, the arts council has relied almost exclusively on volunteers. And while Collins said the efforts of those volunteers have been invaluable, he said the board’s goal is to have four to six full-time employees, in addition to some hourly support at the Gallery and Gift Shop.

“We want to invest in the community, invest in community members, and pay,” he said.