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First Night Boston Ceases Operations, But The Mayor Says The Show Will Go On

Fireworks explode over an native-american themed ice sculpture during  First Night" Boston New Year's Eve celebrations in Boston, Friday, Dec. 31, 2004. (AP/Michael Dwyer)

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BOSTON – The irony of the Facebook post wasn’t lost on anyone who knows Joyce Linehan: “So, what’s everyone doing New Year’s Eve? Looks like I’m free!” Linehan is the tireless publicist for many arts organizations around town, including ArtsEmerson, many events at the Institute of Contemporary Art and – until yesterday – First Night Boston.

That’s when First Night Boston announced it was closing up shop as the budget woes got too much to handle, though it hopes to transfer the organizational copyright to the city and/or another organization that can continue the New Year’s Eve festivities. Christopher Cook, director of the Mayor’s Office of the Arts, Tourism, & Special Events, said today that the city would take over stewardship of the event and that the show would go on, but it was too early to say what would be scaled back. The free outdoor events, however, appear to be safe.

Although the news appears to be sudden, taking many by surprise, it didn’t shock many artists or arts administrators. “It didn’t come as a surprise to me,” said jazz bassist and Berklee professor Rick McLaughlin with a rueful sense of humor, “because I know I got paid less as time went on. “And there was something a few years ago that they were having problems so [First Night Boston] strikes me as an organization that’s been having trouble trying to stay afloat.”

Noisemakers on display on Boston Common in 2010. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Noisemakers on display on Boston Common in 2010. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

He added, “It doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me. I’ve been playing with a bunch of different groups in the ‘90s and this century and the nice thing about First Night was that it didn’t matter whether you were with an established group like Either/Orchestra [he’s a member] or musicians trying to get traction. They made room for household names and up and comers.”

Mayor Thomas Menino took shots in today’s Globe at First Night Boston for a lack of creativity and an unwillingness to “make the tough decisions.” This struck some in the arts community as grandstanding. First Night Boston has made no secret about what has been a dramatic downturn in funding, from $880,000 in 2003 to $263,000 now, so why did the mayor wait until now to offer the city’s help? In fact, the city did convene business leaders to discuss the problem, but too late to keep the present structure intact.

Geri Guardino, the director of First Night Boston, did not return fire at the mayor. “I understand his frustration and the business model does need to change. But this is a one-time-a-year event and it’s not like an arts organization cutting back from ten events to eight. We have a festival in the winter, some of it outdoors, it’s very spread out through the city – it’s a funny little message to get across. The marketing has changed, the distribution of the [admission] buttons has changed, there are a lot of obstacles to get through. We’re hoping that First Night will be reinvented by city, maybe in partnership with other organizations.’

When you look at the estimated impact, it’s around $25 million. It means something to the restaurants, the MBTA, the service industry professionals, it’s a revenue generator … so I think the event is safe, but how it goes forward, that’s going to alter and change.
– Christopher Cook

Guardino, and others not affiliated with First Night, noted all the cutbacks that have been made, including going from more expensive national names to more affordable local acts, but that there was no more to be cut without dramatically changing the nature of the event. “We might have been able to eke out another year, but we thought we should close responsibly and not take that risk.”

There were other woes beside the budget – the snowstorms of 2009 and 2010, fewer locally-owned corporations, the shift to political and social causes by many donors, the Recession.

Cook praised First Night Boston, but echoed the need for a different model than a stand-alone nonprofit like the current one. “I think we’re in an era of strategic partnerships and collaborations and First Night, like many arts organizations, is faced with the question of ‘what’s the next stage of our life cycle?’ “

He thinks the event will continue even if a less arts-friendly administration succeeds Menino’s. “Even if it’s less arts-friendly it’s going to be economic-development-friendly. When you look at the estimated impact [of what the event means to the city], I believe it’s around $25 million. It means something to the restaurants, the MBTA, the service industry professionals, it’s a revenue generator … so I think the event is safe, but how it goes forward, that’s going to alter and change.”

Eric Bornstein smooths the surface of a clay mask mold before applying plaster. before 2002 First Night. (SEVANS/AP)

Eric Bornstein smooths the surface of a clay mask mold before applying plaster. before 2002 First Night. (SEVANS/AP)

Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, has nothing but praise for First Night Boston. “The First Night staff, both the fulltime team and parttime team, did heroic work on behalf of all of us to create an amazing experience and to put a great spotlight on the city. I think we should thank them for all they’ve given us. This is an opportunity for all of us to think about what we value and help each other as colleagues across all the various business and artistic sectors. We’re all in this together to make Boston a great place to visit on New Year’s Eve. And it’s a great time to reflect on what it takes to have these events and celebrations and bring Boston’s streets to life.”

McLaughlin picked up on that idea.

“As a musician, it felt like a real community of people you were playing to whether they were from Southie, Cambridge, or Haverhill. For one night, everyone’s a Bostonian. Looking out into the audience you’d see familiar faces, but also families, people showing their Celtics colors instead of their Museum of Fine Arts colors. It helps artists broaden their reach, but it also makes the experience more profound.”

It certainly seems as if it’s to everyone’s advantage to keep the event going. Businesses make more money. Artists and audiences obviously benefit. And while the city has to pay for enforcement, McLaughlin noted that maybe because there are so many families who now go out on First Night, the city as a whole is better behaved. So perhaps there’s an economic benefit there, too.

And we know about the artistic benefit. A new dawn for First Night can only be a good thing.

Steve Brown talks to Geri Guardino.

Comments

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  • Bmac

    I stopped going a couple years back when John Hancock Hall made people wait outside in a blizzard until the show started rather than in their very large and spacious lobby; it was just plain cruel.

  • larrymurray

    Someone should ask Bill and Clara Wainwright who basically invented First Night at a dinner party and made it about local artists on a small scale, what they think the future should look like.