Sarah Dion regularly enjoys First Friday, the monthly event when Portland galleries and museums stay open late and art fans are encouraged to take in the showings of oils and watercolors as they stroll Congress Street.

But that wasn’t her focus Friday night, when she helped run a “listening wall” designed by the University of Southern Maine School of Social Work to encourage a conversation about homelessness and gentrification.

Dion saw no conflict between discussing a serious social issue on a night supposedly devoted to the city’s burgeoning arts scene.

“It’s our opportunity to talk to a variety of people,” she said while standing in a packed Monument Square, linking up USM “listeners” with bystanders wanting to talk about how to help get homeless people off the streets.

Throughout its 15-year history, First Friday has regularly been a huge draw, packing the sidewalks and occasionally even Congress Street itself, when the downtown thoroughfare is closed during the event. In addition to the galleries, artists and craftspeople set up shop on the sidewalks to sell their paintings and jewelry, while street performers sing, play instruments or juggle.

Friday night, one man strolled through the crowd in a white outfit and pink cape, festooned with one button proclaiming “Free Love” and another inviting people to “Play with Me.”

But there has always been some concern over whether art, broadly defined, really is the focus on First Friday. A few years ago, some gallery owners were worried that an evening of dining and drinking overshadowed the event’s arts and cultural aspects.

In recent years, the concern has grown that demonstrations and protests might do the same. Four years ago, Occupy Maine took over Monument Square during a First Friday event, and in December, demonstrators upset with police killings in Missouri and New York marched and stretched out in intersections around the western end of the Art Walk area. The peaceful protest snarled traffic and disrupted a Christmas tree-lighting event, and some motorists were upset that the demonstrators delayed their effort to get to Art Walk events.

With the return of warmer weather, First Friday’s appeal as an event where protesters can reach a wider audience seems to be growing.

Friday night, the Portland Green Independent Committee provided a bookend to Dion’s group with a protest at Congress Square Park in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Tom MacMillan, chairman of the committee, said the event was hastily organized for May Day.

“That it happened to coincide with First Friday is a happy coincidence,” he said.

MacMillan said the chance to reach more people is one advantage of that happy coincidence.

Dion said that likelihood of a large crowd was behind the USM group’s decision to set up its listening wall on First Friday. But she said the event would likely be mutually beneficial – anyone drawn to her event Friday night might stop in an art gallery, and vice versa.

Nat May, the executive director of Space Gallery, said anything that brings people downtown on First Friday is a positive.

“I’m not concerned” about protests held at the same time as the Art Walk, May said. “It’s still an art night downtown and people are out and about.”

May said his gallery usually draws a mix of regulars and fresh faces on First Fridays.

“We’ve had lots of visitors on about all of the First Fridays that we’ve participated in,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to engage with the community.”

Art Walk patrons likewise seemed unfazed.

“I just thought it was part of Art Walk, like a performance,” said Sarah Petrokonis of Burlington, Vermont, as she strolled past the Green Party’s protest. “It’s a good cause, too.”