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Art, music cheer Cape Town’s CBD

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First Thursdays are contributing to Cape Town’s CBD property buzz

The city centre has long been a place where many congregate for work during the day, then for after-hours parties at clubs and bars indoors. It is now increasingly popular between 6pm and 9pm, at the same time as the First Thursday art walks take place.

Around 2015, Gareth Pearson was considering new, shared office space on Hout Street but had not told the estate agent helping him what the space was for. The agent sent an information packet presenting a case for the building and in it was a little section on the First Thursday district, where galleries, museums and other cultural places stay open until around 9pm, along with food trucks, live music and a busy bar scene.

Pearson is one of the founders of First Thursdays in Cape Town. He was looking for a Thursdays Projects office space, as their operation had expanded to First Thursdays in Joburg and Museum Night in Cape Town.

“It was hilarious – here was this agent marketing this property that fell in the First Thursday district.” It all began in 2012 when Pearson, with Michael Tymbios, set up a Facebook group for the event featuring six galleries and a few maps. The First Thursday Cape Town full online programme for June 7 boasts more than 60 galleries, pop-ups, museums, restaurants and bars, with many planning special events.

The popularity of First Thursdays has helped fuel the development of trendy Bree Street restaurant and bars. “The area has had a facelift, and this has been followed by a lot of restaurants choosing this as a venue which they wouldn’t have before,” says Chad Shapiro, senior commercial broker and director at CTS Property Services.

According to the CCID 2018 annual report, Bree Street is one of Capetonians’ favourite places for fun and entertainment, followed by Kloof Street and surrounds, Long Street and the east city. Rather than going home to the suburbs, or choosing to be near the sea in Camps Bay or Sea Point, more people are now choosing to party in town.

“The Bree Street area is one where people are happy to wander up and down the pavements at night,” says Shapiro. “The old prevailing perception of it being unsafe and uncool has been put aside.”

This was the vision Pearson had for the city centre after experiencing First Thursdays in London, where more than 170 galleries participated. As well as a cultural art event, he hoped it would bring people together and act as an urban intervention in a city of commuters, to make the city centre a more attractive place in which to live, work and play.

Gareth Pearson. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

“In South African cities, just to be able to walk around and hang out in the streets at night is such a novel thing and people aren’t used to it. “People go to shopping malls and social spaces tend to be limited to indoor, protected areas.”

One restaurateur who capitalised on the changed city centre by investing in the Bree Street food and beverage hub is Jarryd Segal, managing director of Establishment Hospitality Group. “Bree Street forms the epicentre of the city’s nightlife and culture and has grown from strength to strength in recent years,” he says.

“This made positioning ourselves here a natural choice, one that we had contemplated for some time and finally decided was the correct location for our second Jarryds branch.”

The first Jarryds Espresso Bar + Eatery was in Sea Point. The second opened in June 2017 on the corner of Bree and Church streets, and then SoCal bar a year later on the same premises right behind Jarryds. Establishment Hospitality Group strategically planned the opening of the SoCal bar on a First Thursday.

SoCal Bar on Church and Bree is one of many offering promotions and special events on First Thursdays. Picture: Establishment Hospitality Group

“First Thursday is a prime trading evening, thanks to the density of potential patrons wandering up and down,” says Segal. Shapiro knows better than most how critical First Thursdays can be for restaurants and bars, as he specialises in restaurant retail space. In the winter when there is less trade and little tourism, he says many restaurants have just been “biding their time” for the summer to come to deliver customers.

Pearson says he has received feedback from restaurants that First Thursdays have provided a critical revenue boost in winter. Shapiro says he has a message for visitors from out of town: “I explain to them, the closer they are to First Thursdays, the closer they are to where the young buzz is happening.”

New audiences feed art scene

While First Thursday crowds are great for bars and clubs, they can be risky for galleries. For many, like The Cape Gallery on Church Street, “the free promotion is fantastic” but can pose security risks, says managing director Gail Dörje. Recently a wooden giraffe sculpture on sale for R11 000 was bumped and cracked.

But “the benefits outweigh the risks”, says Dörje, and they often time exhibition openings to coincide with First Thursdays. There has been an increase in commercial activity in the square kilometre of the CBD where First Thursdays take place.

Mirjam Asmal, director of the AVA Gallery in Church Street, estimates there were about 10 galleries in the area in 1996 and between 50 and 60 today. Michael Chandler, an artist and owner of Chandler House, opened in 2013, a year after First Thursdays started.

“The Ocean of Limitlessness”, A solo exhibition by Abdus Salaam at the AVA Gallery. Picture: AVA Gallery

He says the event was more intimate in the earlier days but has “become quite a beast and more of a street party than a place for discerning clients to view art”.

But even if most of the people who walk through the door are just browsers, “all you need is one good sale to make the evening worth while”, says Chandler. “We get many people coming back afterwards to make purchases.” Those people might never have set foot in a gallery without First Thursdays.

The diversified audience is the biggest perk of the event believes Asmal. “Going to exhibitions was for white, upper-class, middle-aged people and First Thursdays has changed that.” Today, says Asmal, she sells someone their first piece of art almost every First Thursday.

This is warming, especially since AVA is a non-profit where young artists can trade, so prices are lower than at most other galleries. Locals are hungry for more creative events in the CBD. The CCID 2018 annual report ssocaays central city residents want more events along First Thursday lines, along with murals and temporary installations.

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