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editorial

Rescue Boston’s First Night, but rethink it as well

In achanging city, it’s only to be expected that a high-profile civic event such as Boston’s First Night celebration will evolve over time as well. Amid organizational infighting and shrinking corporate funding, the operation behind Boston’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration recently announced it was shutting down. Mayor Menino, properly, has vowed to keep First Night alive. But in addition to preserving what should be New England’s signature year-end party, it’s also crucial that both the city and the next group of organizers figure out how to revitalize it.

Wisely, Boston’s First Night — the oldest and largest event of its kind — has never tried to compete for the throngs who head to Times Square. The event began its 37-year run as a way to attract people from across the region to what once seemed like a deeply troubled city. Millions of locals and residents now cherish memories of the grand procession down Boylston Street, ice sculptures, fireworks, and local arts performances. But as the city’s fortunes have improved, it’s entirely possible that a different mix of events could prove more successful.

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While First Night has focused strongly on family attendees, it hasn’t been as aggressive about drawing in Boston’s many students and 20-something professionals, perhaps on the theory that they’d left town for the holidays. This, however, is the very group that’s awake to revel at midnight and — as was on display at May’s inaugural Boston Calling music festival — most willing to stand out in the wet and cold for hours if they have something to wait for. To that end, the lineup of performers at First Night could be reimagined to set a more youthful tone. Springing for a marquee spectacle with a big-name act or two will pay off if it draws both bigger crowds and a new generation of Bostonians.

Festival organizers have always had to fight harsh winter conditions to lure merrymakers. A further complication has been that the event’s 200 performances are spread across Boston, forcing those who wish to make a night of it to walk miles between the 35 venues or take the T. At least in First Night’s rebuilding phase, it will help to give the evening a sense of place by condensing and centralizing festivities in Back Bay and Copley Square. That way the Hynes Convention Center also can be host to most of the musical acts and other performances, giving attendees little need to step outside at all if the weather fails to cooperate.

Generally speaking, the job of running a major arts festival is far better suited to an independent, private nonprofit. Given that New Year’s Eve is only six months away, however, the city likely has few options but to step in temporarily as the organizer of this December’s event. Still, public funding for First Night should remain limited, and what’s needed in the long term is new leadership on more stable financial footing.

Some things shouldn’t change: Since it first started in 1976, First Night stood out for its emphasis on being culturally stimulating rather than commercially driven. It should continue to be a showcase for Boston’s diverse arts community, including young and emerging talent.

Still, it’s vital to take stock of how First Night fits into the Boston of today — and of whether it can play a broader role in the city’s cultural life. For instance, City Councilor John Connolly, a mayoral candidate, has suggested the event should be the kickoff for a monthlong festival in January to celebrate local museums, galleries, and music. Creative new ideas may attract both visitors and more sustainable corporate sponsorship, and will help build a more robust cultural atmosphere downtown all year round.

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