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Editorial: A good first step on First Night

People leave the Academy of Music after attending a performance during First Night Northampton on Dec. 31, 2012. The Northampton Center for the Arts announced Monday that it will continue to produce the event this year.
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

People leave the Academy of Music after attending a performance during First Night Northampton on Dec. 31, 2012. The Northampton Center for the Arts announced Monday that it will continue to produce the event this year. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »

The First Night Northampton celebration will be back Dec. 31 and the Center for the Arts is again producing it — but with more supporting players. This is a move that bodes well for the long-term future of the event and arts collaboration in the city.

As the curtain went up on last year’s New Year’s Eve entertainment festival, Center for the Arts director Penny Burke had made clear that it was to be her organization’s last First Night production.

Burke doesn’t mince words when describing the year-around effort it takes to mount First Night. She knows it well. The center has organized First Night for 28 years and she’s done the last 10 of them. The entertainment runs from noon to midnight, with up to 75 performing acts, 20 venues and fireworks. It’s a major juggling act, all done on a $65,000 budget.

The First Night decision was also driven by the center’s own uncertain circumstances. After 30 years, the Center for the Arts must move out of its office and performance space in the Sullivan Square building at the corner of Main and New South by the end of June. The center still has no home, and it may rent space for offices.

The turnaround for the center grew out of a meeting hosted this winter by Mayor David Narkewicz in which he pulled together city arts and business groups to brainstorm ways to keep First Night going, essentially to find a replacement producer. First Night is good for the economy, for the city’s arts and entertainment image, for the performers, and as a fundraiser.

While a city nonprofit could take it over, it is better that an arts group run it and profit from it, as the center has done.

In the end, those at the meeting, including representatives from the Northampton Arts Council, the Academy of Music, the Northampton Community Arts Trust and business leaders, all agreed the Center for the Arts was the best choice to continue running First Night and they offered various levels of assistance to make that happen.

It was more than a vote of encouragement. There was also a commitment of help with the logistics of First Night, which have grown more complex. The center board also stepped up with a commitment to hire someone part time in June to assist Burke with the planning and organizing.

Burke told the Gazette this month that details are still being worked out, but she is pleased other organizations are prepared to pitch in, including Smith College, which may offer more venues for performances.

It may be that the short-lived First Night crisis engenders a new partnership and collaboration among arts and businesses groups that will not only sustain the New Year’s Eve festivities, but also serve the city and nurture the arts in other ways. The mayor started an important conversation. We urge him to keep it going.

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