Art in Paradise: Not the Last First

First Night Northampton is impressive in its sprawl. It’s hard to believe that one person bears the lion’s share of responsibility for filling venues all over Northampton with around 75 music and entertainment acts, coordinating all these events plus fireworks and a countdown to the new year with the police department and the city. Penny Burke, director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, has been the driving force behind the event for a decade, and she’s ready to share that enormous responsibility.

Now that the Center for the Arts is coping with the end of its 30-year lease at about the same time First Night preparations begin in late spring, Burke has announced her intention to spread the job around, with 2013 working as a transition year, with less (or no) Center for the Arts involvement planned for the 2014 event.

Editorials have embraced the clear imperative to keep First Night going, and it’s easy to agree: it has become a major part of the cultural calendar, and a draw for visitors from near and far that showcases the enormous talent pool of the Valley. Its role as an economic driver and its contribution to Northampton’s standing as a cultural mecca are clear.

For Burke and the board of the Center for the Arts, the reason for changing how First Night is put together is also clear: “It’s bigger than we are,” says Burke. “We’ve been reaching out for help for years. Few people have stepped forward.”

It’s a story that happens over and over in the arts world. Performers and audiences are more than happy to participate and enjoy, unaware of all that has to happen for an event to take flight. Not, of course, that they particularly need to concern themselves with the tenacity of the behind-the-scenes producers. Once the enormity of that job is made plain, though, not many people are willing to dive into such a big responsibility themselves. It’s not showy stuff to do the yeoman’s work of negotiating contracts, coordinating complicated schedules, and finding sponsors to cover costs. Dealing with the combination of those things takes a particular kind of talent that’s pretty rare.

Burke says with a laugh that, in her role as NCA director and First Night coordinator, “It is an advantage to not be an artist.”

First Night has been able to flourish in part because of the unique circumstances in which the Center itself has existed—the organization’s space is rent-free, with the City of Northampton as landlord. The city’s budget line item for First Night is just $6,160, largely because the Center for the Arts is an independent non-profit. Now the massive coordinating challenge must be doled out to other organizations and/or the city, no easy task. It seems clear that someone must do the macro-level work of seeing that all the jobs get done, and it may be easier to keep the organizing in one set of hands.

That raises the question not only of who could take it on, but of who could—and would—fund such a spot. Few arts organizations have at their helms people who could incorporate the massive load of extra time and work, and it’s likely to require a position all its own at one of those organizations or in the city government.

The good news is that First Night, despite its significant cost, has turned a profit. Burke says that money has primarily gone into the Center’s “restricted funds” for the group’s impending move to yet-to-be-determined new digs. “Instead of a fundraiser,” she says, “we hope to convert First Night to a self-sustaining event.”

Burke’s thoughts on First Night, considering its long-term success and growth with her at the helm, ought to be heeded. It’s easy for such herculean undertakings to fade away when the institutional knowledge they require goes away. Here’s hoping that Burke’s last First Night task will be finding the right person to pass that knowledge to.

It may well be that the scale of First Night, in terms of its number of venues and its 12-hour run time, can’t be sustained without Burke’s efforts. But even if First Night changes, Northampton can’t afford for it to go away. And standing around in downtown Northampton on a cold December night wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining without hordes of revellers on-hand.•

Author: James Heflin

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