First Night weathers all sorts of storms

Anyone who has ever organized or promoted an entertainment event knows how much of a crap shoot such an endeavor can be. Consider all the variables in the mix: choosing a venue and date, contracting for guest artists, maintaining delicate balances when determining programming and calculating a target audience. Also, in Broome County, of course, there’s always the weather.

L. Tillotson at FNB River Blessing

And I’m just talking about one play or one concert or one kid-friendly hands-on art activity. Multiply all that uncertainty by 30 or so, and you might get an idea what Lesley Tillotson and Southern Tier Celebrates! go through to present our  annual New Year’s Eve revels, First Night Binghamton.  Add in the vagaries of public funding, and you’ll understand the additional angst that went into the most recent celebration, First Night 2010.

Last April – mercifully before any artists’ contracts had been signed – STC! learned that a frequent source of First Night support would not be available from New York state. In previous years, STC! Executive Director Tillotson said, such money had covered 20 to 25 percent of First Night’s expenses.

STC! had to rethink its plans. Fewer artists were engaged, although, Tillotson pointed out, the quality remained high. A couple of traditional venues were eliminated (however, one location returned to bring the net loss to only one). Community businesses stepped up to the sponsorship plate because, as Tillotson said, “Binghamton has a real pride in First Night,” and the City of Binghamton helped negotiate the contract with popular dance act Galumpha.

Final tally: 23 venues, both indoors and outdoors; 33 artist groups, ranging from individuals such as jugglers and ice sculptors to ensembles such as rockers  and steel drum bands. “We did well with what we had,” Tillotson said during a recent interview in her Metrocenter office (49 Court St., Binghamton).

“Nothing (for First Night),” said Tillotson, “was done without a lot of thought.” She understands the recent criticism on BAMirror about the absence of some popular acts but points out that, for every person who says, “Where was XYZ this year?” there’s another person who says, “What!?! XYZ again?”. That’s one of the reasons why local artists often are asked to “cycle out” for a year.

First Night must have a diverse array of performers, some for the early-bird families and others for the older, late-night crowds. Artists need to be matched to the available performance spaces. And funding criteria must be met. For example, a grant from Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour was available only if STC! requested an artist that had not played First Night before (One World Tribe) as opposed to one that had appeared here for a couple of years (Svitanya).

STC! also seeks out artists who can spend more time in Broome County than just 4 p.m. to midnight Dec. 31. “We’re looking for the layering effect of being in the community for two or three days’ outreach,” Tillotson said. Workshops and outreach performances are designed to touch segments of the population that might not be able to attend First Night (i.e., senior housing residents) or to build an audience (i.e., world music drummers visiting a school or youth center).  By offering  different arts experiences, she explained, STC! strives to fulfill its mission of “creating community through the arts.”

That mission motivates programming throughout the year.  STC! presents a couple of ticketed performance events, several Community Arts Making projects and its On the Road community outreach and arts in education programs. STC!’s Binghamton Summer Music Festival includes the annual Latin fest and the Binghamton Philharmonic’s July 4ish “Pops! in the Arena” concert as well as a full summer of Brown Bag Lunch concerts in cooperation with the City of Binghamton. More than 98 percent of STC! programs are free to the community.

If you visit, you’ll be able to find much of summer 2010’s Brown Bag schedule. And, although the ice sculptures have barely melted from First Night 2010, STC! already is deep into planning for First Night 2011, to be held Dec. 31, 2010. Invitations to certain artists have been extended, pending  the acquisition of grant money.  Needless to say, grant writing is underway.

And, as she sat beneath the Orazio Salati painting that became the artwork for the “Living Landscapes” theme of the last First Night, Tillotson pointed out that the next First Night theme  must be chosen by March.

Things you might not know about STC!

  • Southern Tier Celebrates!, a non-profit arts organization, was founded in 2002 when the Binghamton Summer Music Festival and First Night Binghamton merged.
  • More than 30,000 residents of the Southern Tier are served annually, including the more than 700 youth reached through the Community Arts Making Program and the 10,000 or so people who attended First Night 2010 (an increase from First Night 2009).
  • STC! employed more than 400 artists in 2009.
  • Another 65 people were employed for technology and event support in 2009.
  • A large number of volunteers also are needed for First Night, which, Lesley Tillotson says, is a “huge undertaking” requiring “enormous energy.”

One Response to “First Night weathers all sorts of storms”

  1. zaborofsky Says:

    I have been a performing artist for the last 30 years, and in that time have participated in 20 First Night celebrations around the country, so I think I have a good sense of what makes a successful evening. I’ve never been part of Binghamton’s version, though I applied 4 years in a row (and guess what, I was rejected 5 times, so go figure). But, believe me, I know what I’m talking about.

    Contrary to the way some people may feel, a First Night celebration should be more than an occasion to see the same local bands, dance troupes and other performers (who can be seen at other venues throughout the year anyway), coupled with a smattering of imported talent. First Night should live up to the meaning behind its name and provide people with something that is indeed totally new, surprising and exciting. After all, isn’t it supposed to be a celebration of the “new?”

    Besides, hiring the same people year after year is not only boring and unimaginative, but it breeds favoritism and is ultimately corrupt.

    Binghamton First Night seeks to have the appearance of being something new by always announcing an annual theme. In fact, the performers’ application specifically asks how the artist(s) work will conform to it. But it’s a bogus question because ultimately, most of those who are hired having nothing to do with it.

    The greater Binghamton area is a very ethnically and culturally splintered place. The First Night organizers have to embrace the needs and expectations of all the people who make this area home to make it a truly successful community event.

    A little imagination is all that is required to save Binghamton’s First Night from suffocating.

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