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Editorial: Saving First Night

  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>from the E. J. Gare Parking Garage, Judy Grigley, left, and Moira Murphy, right watch the First Night fireworks with their children, Lily Grigely and Zack Peterson, center

    GORDON DANIELS
    from the E. J. Gare Parking Garage, Judy Grigley, left, and Moira Murphy, right watch the First Night fireworks with their children, Lily Grigely and Zack Peterson, center

  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>from the E. J. Gare Parking Garage, Judy Grigley, left, and Moira Murphy, right watch the First Night fireworks with their children, Lily Grigely and Zack Peterson, center

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz might want to check out Monday’s First Night Northampton performance by a vaudeville circus act. He has a high-wire stunt of his own to execute next year.

Narkewicz plans to get a group together to figure out how to keep the celebration going. After running it for 28 years, the Northampton Center for the Arts will no longer oversee this pearl of arts programming. The mayor says he believes the responsibility to mount First Night can be transferred.

First Night should not go the way of the Taste of Northampton, the former food festival that, like the year-end citywide party, showcased Northampton, fostered community and stimulated the economy. After nearly three decades, it would be sad to see First Night fold up its tent.

The Center for the Arts is bowing out in part because around the time First Night programming work begins in earnest, in late spring, it will have to leave its longtime home in the Sullivan Square building downtown, when the lease that required a developer to provide arts space in the former city school expires.

When Narkewicz gathers civic and arts leaders to ponder the future of First Night, don’t expect anyone to rush forward to take charge. Already, officials with the Northampton Business Improvement District and the Northampton Arts Council have signaled they are willing to advise, but not absorb, the responsibility for this major undertaking.

To save First Night, we believe the city itself will have to invest significantly more than the $6,160 line item now in its budget for the event. Running First Night worked for the Center for the Arts for so long because it reaped proceeds that allowed it to underwrite its mission of broadening the city’s arts scene.

Any successor will need substantial working capital, long before buttons are sold for next year’s celebration. Penny Burke, the tenacious arts center executive director who organized 10 First Nights, says she has needed $40,000 at the outset to satisfy contracts with performers.

As Narkewicz and others work to preserve this tradition, they’ll want to be sure that sponsors, such as PeoplesBank, this year’s main underwriter, stay on board.

While many hands can make light work, organizing First Night is a bear. Bob Cilman of the Arts Council, a veteran and successful event producer, characterized the assignment of orchestrating dozens of performances at 20 venues over the course of 12 hours as “very hard.” For the last 10 years, Burke sweated the details. Her organization slowly expanded its ambitions and adjusted its staffing to pull it off. As a longtime supporter and sponsor of First Night, we at the Gazette have seen Burke’s commitment up close. We salute her long service and thank her for developing such a profoundly satisfying event for people of all ages.

Now a new organization or coalition of groups must step in. But given the nature of arts programming, someone must be in charge. It is a large enough job to be tough to fit in around the edges of any existing organization.

The arts center had good reason to stick with First Night. The trouble now will be moving that burden, and later the benefit, to an organization able to add staffing apart from its current mission. That will take courage, imagination and, most of all, a sense of service to the arts. The yearly performances pass by in half a day, but together help many artists expand their audiences, notch a good payday and, in the big picture, enrich the region’s creative economy. The Taste of Northampton ended, we believe, because participating restaurants found it too difficult to operate booths while still running their regular kitchens.

Narkewicz’s plan must avoid that kind of fatigue, look past next year and put the event on a solid footing for the long run. The mayor’s time is precious, but if he can help preserve First Night Northampton, it is worth the investment.

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