A scaled-down First Night program may short arts
City officials have selected a Boston company to produce a scaled-down version of First Night festivities to ring in 2016, with the usual ice sculptures, fireworks, and parade, but few, if any, artistic performances.
The city sent a letter to Conventures Inc. on Friday proposing a one-year partnership. The events and marketing company’s portfolio includes three Tall Ships festivals and the Tufts Health Plan 10k for Women.
Dusty Rhodes, the company’s president and a familiar presence in the city, said she received the letter Monday. But Rhodes and city officials cautioned that planning is still in the early stages, with Conventures and city officials hoping to convene in the next two weeks to hash out ideas.
“We’ve accepted the offer,’’ Rhodes said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But the first step is to sit and talk about the city’s wishes and expectations. We want to do this wholeheartedly, enthusiastically, and we want to do this very, very well.”
Joyce Linehan, the city’s policy chief, said only two companies responded to the city’s request for bids to produce the popular New Year’s Eve event, which attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators to Boston.
“Conventures’ proposal exhibited a really good understanding of what the event is and what it means to the city. They also have a proven track record in producing events in Boston,’’ said Linehan, a well-known figure in the arts community, former media relations director of First Night for 13 years, and confidante of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
The other company that submitted a bid is called JJLA LLC, Linehan said. The Globe requested a copy of the companies’ proposals, more information about JJLA, and the award letter to Conventures, but officials were not able to provide them by deadline Tuesday. Officials also said the award letter resided on the computer of a vacationing official.
The thought of a scaled-down version of First Night has irked some in the arts community, including Clara Wainwright, who founded the event at her dinner table in 1976.
“I’m sorry that after City Hall ran this event very successfully for two years, First Night will [now] be organized in a skeletal form,’’ Wainwright said. “I had hoped that a young arts organization with fresh eyes could come forward. Maybe next year.”
Conventures, which bills itself as New England’s leading events planner, agreed to the one-year partnership, with the option to add two years if the arrangement proves successful. Rhodes estimated that Conventures would need to raise $300,000 to $500,000 in the next six months to put on First Night; she said she expects the event to break even.
Rhodes said she plans to meet with representatives of the city and the arts and hospitality community to go over ideas. After 38 years in the business, Rhodes said, Conventures has “some basic instincts” on what works in the city. She said the event is too spread out and needs to be condensed, simplified, and better focused.
“Condensed does not mean lesser,’’ she said. “There will definitely be a lovely celebration. It will be smaller, no question. It will be condensed, and that doesn’t mean it will be lesser quality.”
About six weeks ago, Linehan and Walsh appealed to private companies to take over First Night. The city had produced the festivities the past two years, after the event organizers floundered during the recent recession. Walsh, joined by Linehan, said the large-scale fete was simply too much for the city to handle.
At its height, First Night’s budget was more than $2 million and festivities were held for three days. But the budget shrank — last year’s was $678,000.
At the time of the appeal, Linehan said the city was seeking a creative group to inject new life and perspective into the nearly 40-year-old celebration.
But after the bidding process closed, it appeared Linehan lowered her expectations. In late May, Wainwright wrote to Linehan in an e-mail inquiring about the status of First Night bidding.
“Two responses. Neither very appealing on their faces,” Linehan wrote, according to e-mails provided to the Globe.
Wainwright continued pressing for answers. She said she knew of an events organizer who wanted to submit a bid but could not find information online. On May 26, she wrote Linehan again, noting a list of concerns.
“What happens if no one steps forward at this point?’’ Wainwright asked in the e-mail.
Linehan responded that the city had found a suitable producer.
“I just don’t think it’s going to look much like an arts festival. There will be ice sculptures and fireworks, and hopefully a procession,’’ Linehan wrote. “I’m trying to pull it all together, but it’s an orphan at this point. Government doesn’t move quickly, which is why it never should have landed there in the first place.”
Asked about the e-mails during an interview, Linehan said that after reading Conventures’s proposal in depth, she now believes it is “very, very strong.”
Linehan said what might have seemed like a lack of enthusiasm in her early e-mails to Wainwright stemmed from disappointment that some events would be eliminated. Linehan said the initial plans included “a smaller geographic footprint” that concentrates on Copley Square and the Waterfront, two standard venues for First Night.
The plan would keep the ice sculptures, fireworks, and procession, but offer no music in churches, dance performances, and theatrical shows, Linehan said.
“I think that people are going to be grateful that First Night is still in existence — with the fireworks and the ice sculptures, which are the things that draw hundreds of thousands of people to Boston on Dec. 31,’’ Linehan said.
Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story said the Globe asked for the request-for-proposal document from the city and that it was on the computer of a vacationing official. The story should have said the Globe inquired about proposals from two companies seeking to produce First Night 2016 and did not receive them Tuesday. City officials also said that only the award letter is on the computer of the vacationing official.