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Northampton Center for the Arts will no longer sponsor First Night. Will some other organization or coalition of groups take its place?

Northampton Center for the Arts director Penny Burke has organized her 10th and final First Night.

JOSH KUCKENS Northampton Center for the Arts director Penny Burke has organized her 10th and final First Night. Purchase photo reprints »

— After 28 years of putting it together, the Northampton Center for the Arts will no longer sponsor First Night after this year, leaving the future of the annual arts and entertainment event uncertain.

The Center for the Arts, which will be forced to leave its Main Street location by the end of next June, is facing an uncertain future itself as it continues to search for a new home. But Executive Director Penny Burke, who’s been the principal organizer for First Night for 10 years, says it’s simply time for another organization — or a coalition of them — to take up the mantle for the New Year’s Eve celebration.

“It’s not just the confluence of our having to leave our space,” Burke said. “This event has really outgrown us. We’ve had a very good run, but it was the decision of our board of directors that we need to devote our resources to some different things.”

A number of organizations, including the downtown Business Improvement District (BID) and the Chamber of Commerce, help put together First Night; the BID, for instance, organizes the fireworks display that take place at 6:15 p.m., during a break between the afternoon and evening performances. The city also contributes funding to First Night, as do numerous private donors such as PeoplesBank, the primary sponsor for this year’s event.

But the principal responsibility for First Night — booking the 75-plus performing acts, arranging venues for them, and soliciting financial backers and volunteers — has long been the responsibility of the Center for the Arts. Burke says that work is a consuming process that takes months.

“We really begin planning in May,” she said. “By June we start soliciting applications for performers and we’re beginning to secure sponsors, then we’re trying to gather funding over the summer ... it’s a long process, and then we have to get the venues established and figure out where to put the performers.”

To give some scope to the event, the typical budget for First Night runs from $65,000 to $70,000, Burke notes, and she typically has tried to have at least $40,000 in hand just to meet the contracts for performers. Then comes renting space for the actual events — there are 20 venues this year — and other expenses, such as publicity.

Finally, Burke has to secure various city licenses to hold First Night and coordinate with different departments like the police, and she also solicits many volunteers to staff the different venues.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said with a laugh. “It’s been a great experience, and we’ve had wonderful cooperation from a lot of different people and places, like Smith College, but it’s been draining.”

The event has grown over the years from just evening performances in a limited number of venues to a noon-to-midnight celebration, with many family-friendly events during the day and an overall alcohol-free policy. Though First Night has lost some key performance venues over the years, such as the former Union Station restaurant, others have been plugged in, like the former Dynamite Records space in Thornes Market.

First Night has also traditionally served as the principal annual fundraising event for the Center for the Arts. But Burke said any extra monies the center has accumulated in recent years have been restricted to helping find and secure a new home.

The center, formed in partnership with the city in 1984, must leave its longtime space in the former D.A. Sullivan School when its lease expires at the end of June 2013. The organization, with the assistance of the Northampton Community Arts Trust, an independent group, has continued to search for a new location in town, so far unsuccessfully.

Plug the gap

Burke says she can envision another nonprofit group taking over her responsibilities for First Night, or perhaps different organizations dividing up the work, though she added that it was difficult to speculate on just who might step up or how the work might be shared.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this,” she said. “But I’m happy to share my information with anyone.”

Daniel Yacuzzo, the head of the BID, said he and many others in town see First Night as a seminal event for Northampton and want it to continue. But he noted that the BID, though it has worked closely with the Center for the Arts on a number of arts-related events over the years, wasn’t in a position to book performances for First Night.

“We’re not an arts organization — that’s not our strength,” he said. “That said, I wouldn’t close the door (on First Night). It’s such a big community event, and Penny has done such a great job putting it together ... I think after the New Year, maybe we can sit down with the Northampton Community Arts Trust and some other people in town and start a conversation on how we keep this tradition going.”

Bob Cilman, director of the Northampton Arts Council, has years of experience in producing shows, from the Four Sundays in February series at the Academy of Music to the annual Transperformance show at Look Park. But Cilman, who also directs the Young@Heart Chorus and oversees grant funding for area arts organizations, was hesitant to say what role he or his office might play in future First Nights.

“I’d be happy to help if asked,” he said. “But not having talked to the Center for the Arts, or knowing what their thinking is, I’m not comfortable saying how (the Arts Council) might get involved.”

Cilman added that he had no doubt putting the First Night lineup together “is very hard to do. The center’s done a fabulous job with that, year after year.”

For his part, Mayor David Narkewicz says the city is committed to seeing First Night continue; the annual budget includes a line item of $6,160 for the event. The mayor says he plans to host a meeting in January with various groups — the BID, the Chamber of Commerce, the Arts Council and other arts groups, including the Center for the Arts — to “start a conversation on where we go from here.”

“First Night is really a signature event for us and the whole community,” he said. “I completely understand the position of the Center for the Arts — they’re in a period of transition, and they’ve (sponsored) this for 28 years already.”

But with a core group of artists who have regularly appeared at First Night, and the tradition of First Night well established, Narkewicz said he believes the foundation for continuing the event is in place. “We have a year to figure out a new way to do this, and I think we’ll do that,” he said.

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