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fREEdom foR ALL

WITh hIS pASSIon foR ThE ARTS, JoEy VAnAS IS ouT To ChAnGE doWnToWn—onE STRokE AT A TImE By GEoff CARTER

vrated.com | aUgUSt 2012 29

TRAILBLAZERS 2012

Joey Vanas wants to m ak e an artist out of you, even if only for a night. as one of the managing partners of First Friday— the cultural festival that happens in Las Vegas’ arts District every month—Vanas has a full plate: He coordinates with artists, galleries, food trucks, shops, bars and street vendors, all of which are vying for your attention in what amounts to one massive street fair. But to the 35-year-old Vanas, the most hands-on member of First Friday’s brain trust, there’s always time to make art. at the First Friday in July, he directed the creation of a temporary Freedom wall—a blank slate on which anyone could paint or draw in celebration of creativity. “It’s an amazing world we live in where we have the ability to express ourselves however we want to,” Vanas says. “kids as young as 5 and 6 years old painted images, or their names, or the names of loved ones lost in wars. and some people told us, ‘this is the first time I’ve ever taken a paintbrush and put paint on something.’” Vanas is pleased to hear such things. It’s been nearly a year since tony Hsieh, the Ceo of Zappos, and a group of investors bought the First Friday trademark from a nonprofit that founded the event in 2002 but could no longer financially support it. Hsieh, one of the main drivers behind revitalizing Las Vegas’ Downtown core, is moving Zappos’ corporate headquarters into the former City Hall. He saw a twofold opportunity in First Friday: It brings people Downtown, and it fosters the growth of the city’s creative class. If his plans to spark residential expansion and new business in Vegas’ urban core were to move forward, he needed First Friday—and a like-minded partner to run it, someone who shared his notion of a cultural utopia. “tony and I are inspired by Burning man— the ‘un-production’ of it,” Vanas says. “we’re trying to bring that ethos to First Friday.” meaning: Vanas is trying to cultivate an environment in which little things become

something big. Just as the Burning man Festival is a group of camps—some arty in nature, and some just plain bizarre—that add up to the weeklong metropolis that is Black Rock City, Vanas would like Vegas’ artists, businesses and patrons of the arts to form something bigger than just themselves … even if they’ve never so much as doodled on a notepad. more than anything else, Vanas wants people to interact with Vegas’ art scene, not just look at it—“First Friday is not a spectator sport,” he says—and with ideas such as his Freedom wall, the festival is heading in that direction. Vanas himself hasn’t had time to be a spectator since Hsieh recruited him to create offbeat marketing campaigns for Zappos in 2006. when Hsieh published his best-selling memoir, Delivering Happiness, in 2010, Vanas put together a book launch that included a marathon 23-city, 90-day bus tour and charity events. organizing First Friday requires all the fluid, seat-of-the-pants event management skills that Vanas brought to the book tour, and then some. only this time, he’s tasked with not only promoting Vegas’ art scene, but an entire part of the city many have underestimated or dismissed. “I know how important this is for the city,” Vanas says. “Hundreds of thousands of people have come Downtown for the very first time because of this event. and it changes the perception of what Las Vegas has to offer as a whole, as well as what Downtown is.” In the near future, Vanas would like to see First Friday grow to fill the void between the arts District and the bars of Fremont east, about 10 blocks’ worth of bail bondsmen and vacant storefronts. (“It seems like 5 miles because there’s nothing in between there; it’s a lot of dead space,” Vanas says.) and he’d like to see this “un-production” spread organically to the smith Center and beyond. Ultimately, Vanas wants First Friday to become no less than a citywide event—and it begins with everyone doing something they’ve never done before, as he himself did last month. “I picked up a brush, and I started painting on the Freedom wall,” he says, grinning. “It was so much fun. I was drinking the kool-aid, you know?”


Vegas Rated Magazine - August 2012