First Fridays at the Blue Star Contemporary

San Antonio’s monthly art festival showcases local artists, musicians, vendors and more

Blue Star Arts Complex is home to several event venues hosting art exhibitions and sales.

On the first Friday of every month, the city descends on the King William Historic District. Traffic is thick, parking is thin and the district buzzes with tangible energy that pulses down the street. As bars are packed with makeshift artisanal markets, food vendors, bands and cold drinks, musicians on the street serenade a legion of walkers as they migrate toward the epicenter of the action. Sitting next to the San Antonio River in the fading light of the declining day sits the main attraction, the Blue Star Arts Complex, the creative heart of the district.

Converted from a mostly vacant band of refrigerated warehouses, the Blue Star Arts Complex was opened in 1986 when the San Antonio Museum of Art canceled what was to be the first local contemporary art exhibition showcasing San Antonio artists. The new owners of the complex offered the exhibit space in what is now the newly rebranded Contemporary at Blue Star — where local living artists have found space to present their works ever since. Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray, curator of the Contemporary at Blue Star, explained.

“The Contemporary at Blue Star is an arts organization that was founded by San Antonio artists that wanted a space to show work by living contemporary artists in the community,” McGilvray said. “So that’s really at the core of what we do. … We’ve always been in this space right here.”

The founding of the Complex and the Contemporary was a focal point for the revitalization of the historic King William Historic District. Elaine Leahy, development manager of the Contemporary at Blue Star, expounded on the development.

“We, like a lot of artists, started moving to the neighborhood, and the neighborhood started getting redeveloped,” Leahy said. “So now Southtown as a whole is huge. People want to be here, residents and tourists alike. The community was revitalized, the houses were remodeled and the businesses moved in. The River Walk was redone to be a nice linear park. And we are still seeing that growth in the community and it’s really because it’s artist-driven.”

The opening of the Complex began First Friday, which, according to Blue Star’s website, boasts “the longest-running monthly art event” in San Antonio. An event that started as a small organic collective of artists in the late ‘80s has since become an experience for the whole neighborhood. Visitors are treated to a dazzling display of galleries, vendors, live music, bars, thrift stores and more. Many galleries have artists-in-residence to explain their art or to have a friendly chat with.

“People think First Friday is down the street, but it started up here,” said Carolina Flores, an artist who has been showcasing art at Blue Star for the past 32 years. She went on to describe her work: “I’ve been painting for over 50 years. … I’ve done different subjects: a lot of family portraits, family stories, highways.” Pointing to a colorful painting of a trio of pinstriped suited pigs with menacing goatees, she began to tell the origin of her painting. “This is a story about a man that was murdered in my hometown by these men that they referred to as ‘Los Mata Mitos.’ I call it ‘the piggy story’ because as a little kid, I overheard the grownups talking about how they were out. Those Mata Mitos were out and I was thinking of the three little pigs, how could the little pigs commit a murder?”

Many artists love sharing the stories of their art and seem to enjoy First Fridays as much as anyone else. One such artist, Zan Lee Duroy, expressed her enthusiasm for the night.

“It’s just so fun because it’s all different kinds of people and you get to meet the artists,” Duroy said. “A lot of them like to talk — like me. You go to a stuffy gallery, nobody wants to talk to you. So it’s just a really cool hangout kind of thing. Casual and comfortable.”

Trinity students also find a lot of fun in the festivities. Corinne Tallman, junior music education major, started coming here during her first year at Trinity when the event recommenced post-COVID.

“I didn’t even know about it until my friend was like, ‘Hey, let’s go to First Friday.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that is.’ We showed up and everyone’s out here checking out art. There’s live music, there are vendors and there’s amazing art everywhere. It’s just really awesome to see all of San Antonio turned out for an art festival basically every month,” Tallman said.