First Night gathers support needed to continue this year

Last modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — First Night Northampton, the city’s signature New Year’s Eve arts and entertainment extravaganza, is set to continue this December — and the Northampton Center for the Arts will still produce it.

That announcement, made Monday, marks a turnaround from last December, when the center’s longtime director, Penny Burke, said her organization would no longer produce First Night. Burke noted at the time that the future of the center, which has put the annual celebration together for 28 years, was itself uncertain and that it seemed time for another organization — or a group of them — to stage First Night.

But on Monday, Burke said the center has received offers of renewed commitment and additional help from other arts and business organizations in town for making First Night happen. Given that, she said, the Center for the Arts could continue, at least for this year, to produce the event, which features about 75 performing acts and groups in a noon-to-midnight schedule.

“I kind of see this as a transition year, where we begin to make First Night more like similar events in other communities, where it’s a self-sustaining event that’s overseen by the city,” she said. “We’ve had a number of discussions with other organizations and specific people about how we might get others to take on more responsibility” for First Night.

Burke said a key component for this year will be hiring someone part time to work directly with her on planning and organizing First Night. Burke has done the vast amount of that work herself over the past 10 years, and she said sharing the workload will make the project much more manageable.

She said she’s already talking to some potential candidates, with the aim of having someone in place by about June, when planning for First Night begins to ramp up. Funding for the position will come from the budget — generally about $65,000 — that the Center for the Arts maintains for First Night.

Last month Mayor David Narkewicz convened a meeting with representatives from several of the city’s arts and business groups to brainstorm about ways to keep First Night going: the Northampton Arts Council, the Academy of Music, the Northampton Community Arts Trust, the Chamber of Commerce, the Northampton BID, as well as Smith College.

Narkewicz said last December that the city, which budgets a little over $6,000 annually to help produce First Night, had a vested interest in keeping it going, given its popularity and its ability to bring money into the city. “First Night is really a signature event for us and the whole community,” he said.

At that meeting, said Debra J’Anthony, executive director of the Academy of Music, the general consensus was that the Center for the Arts was still the ideal organization to head First Night, given the experience, contacts and organizational skills it had built up over the years.

“We had the sense that (First Night) has already been branded by the Center for the Arts,” she said. “They’re the face of the effort, the ones who know how to get the support to put this on. Changing that face might be really difficult.”

In any event, J’Anthony said, “The Academy is thrilled that First Night will continue and that we’ll continue to be part of it.”

Burke said details are still being worked out but a number of organizations, such as the Rotary Club of Northampton and the Chamber of Commerce, have discussed initiatives they can take to generate more publicity for First Night and help in other ways. Smith College has also offered to work with her to find more venues for performances.

The center’s effort to produce First Night has been hampered in the last few years by its search for a new home. The organization must leave its longtime office and performance space in the D.A. Sullivan School building on Main Street by the end of June, as its 30-year lease at the property has not been renewed.

Burke and the organization’s board of trustees have devoted considerable energy in the last few years to finding a new permanent location, so far without success. But Burke said the effort is continuing, and the center is also looking to rent office space in the city for the time being. “We’re going to continue in one way or the other.”


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