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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Sun and Heir: First Night Santa Cruz executive director Blake Smith has taken a hands-on approach to revitalizing the New Year's Eve event.

Running Deep Into the Night

First Night Santa Cruz surges into its 11th year amid a rushing current of artistic momentum, with the theme 'Rivers of Life.' Behind the scenes, organizers of local nonprofits may have made a breakthrough in how to bring real community back to the local arts scene.

By Mike Connor

'This is First Night's comeback year," says First Night Santa Cruz executive director Blake Smith. "The event was done well for 10 years, but it needed to be reinvented, and I'm here to do that."

Smith's bold words, spoken over a fully leaded cup of pre-evening coffee back during the beginning of December, sound like more than just the result of proper caffeination. They sound believable. Indeed, Smith speaks with the confident air of an athlete in the zone, setting in motion a party for 15,000 people--the largest community event of the year.

But why call it a "comeback?"

Well, because two years ago First Night didn't happen at all, and the turnout last year was painfully low, due in part to the fact that Smith, who was hired in May, had only seven months to do a yearlong job. Sometimes, it seems to have been sheer dedication that's gotten him through.

"The budget was so tight in June that I was going to chain myself to the clock tower till we raised the money," says Smith. "But then I thought, 'No, they'll say [I've] lost it.' And maybe I have, but I'm that dedicated to the cause."

The dedication has paid off. At the First Night International conference this past year, Smith was awarded the "Golden Shoestring" award for cost-conscious projects under $300 for an art installation at last year's event called "Ten Seconds of Santa Cruz," in which scenes of the city drawn by First Night participants were strung together to resemble giant film strips and posted on the fence around the empty Rittenhouse lot.

"The president of the international organization grabbed me and pulled me up onstage, and she said, 'I want everyone to know that First Night Santa Cruz was dark last year, and now they're here winning awards,'" he remembers. "And everyone stood up and applauded."

Thanks in part to Smith's creative budgeting, First Night broke even with their finances last year. Now Smith is confident that First Night is on the upswing, in large part due to the theme, "Rivers of Life," celebrating the San Lorenzo River as well as the United Nations International Decade of Water and Life. The theme, he says, has inspired support across the community, bringing in organizations like the Soquel Creek Water District showcasing children's water conservation cartoons, as well as the city itself, which is working on plans to revitalize the San Lorenzo River.

"It's something that people can be galvanized around," he says, "something that really lends itself well to being fleshed out."

Take Me to the River

Indeed, the strange, dreamy world beneath the surface of the water has always been a rich source of artistic and poetic inspiration, but the San Lorenzo has usually been an exception to that rule. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in an effort to control recurring flooding back in the '50s, effectively neutralized the destructive power of the San Lorenzo, but also robbed it of its natural beauty and grace (not to mention most of its steelhead trout and coho salmon).

The "Rivers of Life" theme is helping to focus the community's attention on the river at a time when the city is slowly working to restore some of the San Lorenzo's handsomer features and increase pedestrian access points. In a shining example of the synergy created when art and community action merge, Buster Simpson is already moving forward with a plan to install public art along the river that would increase awareness of the city's long-term goals.

But it will be hard to top First Night's pervasive display of public art. Look for children in the Grand Procession with their faces painted like fish; or the "A River Runs Through Us" project in which artists from the Seven Directions Children's Art Institute showcase a multicanvas piece connected by one river; or the Underwater Block, an art piece by Kathleen Crocetti and Kevin James, who will transform a block of Pacific Avenue into an underwater riverbed, complete with billowing river reeds and fiber optic lights, with a 30-foot-long artificial river running through it, down which revelers are invited to float their resolutions.

The schedule of performances this year reveals an extravagant party somehow organized on a shoestring budget. But I couldn't help asking Smith to let go of the budgetary constraints in his mind for a moment and describe the First Night of his dreams. He imagines a carnival in the Trader Joe's parking lot and collaborations with the Seaside Company, extending the event all the way across the town; he sees a buildings dressed up to look like temples and castles across the world, and a giant canvas painted with stars draped over Pacific Avenue, protecting it from rain, while aerial dancers perform up above the Palomar and Chinese acrobats cavort below.

"My wildest fantasies--that's where I always start," says Smith. "We really, really embrace the idea that the whole town is a stage, and turning Pacific into an underwater scene is only one percent of what could be done. Part of the First Night concept is that you want people in your city to rediscover your city, to see your downtown in a new way, to actually take the landscape of the city and change it somehow."

Reality and Beyond

"In my wildest visions," says Smith, "there's a heck of a lot of people that won't leave town for New Year's Eve because it's so compelling here. Part of the problem with First Night is that it maybe got a bit stale, maybe got a bit big for its britches."

The truth is that the budget for First Night this year is a mere $120,000, more than half of which comes from the city of Santa Cruz in the form of fee waivers. That leaves $60,000 to pay for event insurance, 60 artists groups, 40 visual artists, plus promotional and advertising expenses and the staff salary (Smith is the only staff member--everyone else involved is a volunteer). Obviously the numbers don't add up, but $275,000 of in-kind donations certainly helps.

"That's huge," says Smith, "and it really shows what a community event this is, that the community is so willing to come forward with at least in-kind donations."

Smith also points to a number of fruitful collaborations that are helping him move forward. He's been attending Chamber dinners and Rotary Club breakfasts to recruit new supporters into the fold, and participating in the Leadership Santa Cruz County class, which has recently embarked on a three-year project in which participants will help

First Night discover resources in the community that they didn't know existed.

"That includes all kinds of things," says Smith, "like partnerships with organizations, educating the community about First Night and the value of shared cultural events like First Night."

First Night's emphasis on an alcohol-free and family-oriented event has led to successful outreach to church and substance abuse groups. Smith says the appeal of the event is so broad that it's actually difficult to convey.

"I wanted to go out there and say, 'It's the biggest party of the year!'" says Smith, "But the party idea has such negative connotations. First Night is a celebration of the arts, but what is that?" he asks, not exactly rhetorically. I shrug my shoulders. "Nobody else does either," he continues. "I'd love to say it's a celebration of the arts, and that's kind of our tag line, but it's more than that. It's not just a celebration of the arts, it's also one of the biggest gatherings of the year."

Community: The Big Picture

There's no denying that this is a gigantic event, but the point that gets lost (or buried deep in feature stories) is that it was specifically created to protect the people who come, as well as downtown businesses. It's promoted as "family friendly" to dampen the anarchic free-for-all energy that led to the New Year's Eve riot downtown in 1993. By charging money for buttons and decentralizing the entertainment into various venues throughout the downtown, the event attracts people who are genuinely interested in the performing arts, effectively creating a space that is more than just a place to get drunk and go nuts among a potentially volatile concentration of people.

And while the fear of a riot may or may not be so much paranoia, it's still remarkable that First Night has to struggle so hard to achieve its goal of promoting the arts and protecting and entertaining the entire community. How can First Night be left to founder when its sole purpose is to perform a public service that the public itself demanded?

The easy answer is, of course, that it has not been left to founder; that it is supported by the city and the community--just not adequately enough to be all it aspires to be. And so, like a lot of nonprofits, it needs a champion who's crazy enough to consider chaining themselves to a clock tower to raise money; someone crazy enough to take on the job.

Executive directors of other nonprofits face similar challenges.

"It's hard," says Jane Sullivan, founder and director of the Santa Cruz Film Festival, who also takes on the yearly task of securing venues, sponsors and volunteers for a gigantic community event. Sullivan says she got a lot of help from former First Night ED Marc Murai during her first year in the game, and recognizes the importance of cooperation.

"Blake just emailed me yesterday," says Sullivan, "and I put him in touch with all my volunteers."

It's these kinds of alliances with other nonprofit executive directors that keep Smith hopeful about the future; he likes to entertain hopeful thoughts about using a place like the Tannery live-work space to achieve a level of cooperation that would eliminate duplicate efforts through the sharing of both informational and physical resources.

They've Got Flow

SCICA directors Kirby Scudder and Chip are trying to explore some of the dynamics of community building through the "Blue Maquette" art installation, which will be featured at the ? Gallery during First Night. The project is a 1/100 scale model of downtown, shrunk down to a much more manageable size, giving the viewer a god's-eye-view that is peculiarly conducive to lofty thoughts about the town. Within this context, the Blue Maquette project asks two specific questions of the community: "How can art and community play a greater role in building a sustainable and dynamic cultural environment for the future?" and "What specifically would you like to see executed to represent that solution?"

Responses will be displayed at www.scica.org, and the best one will be enacted in 2005. We can't help but interject here and point out that projects like this year's First Night, which seamlessly merge art and community awareness, are exactly the kinds of things we love to see. We loved that a local film festival had the chutzpah to present the egalitarian theme, "All Digital Films Are Handmade," highlighting renegade do-it-yourself filmmakers who continue to push the boundaries of the art form. And we'd love to see more public art projects like Buster Simpson's that educate our community and enrich its sense of itself.

I asked Smith if he has any ideas about how to make such ambitious undertakings easier to pull off.

"My vision is," says Smith, "what we really need in this town is a downtown events office that either manages or promotes events. Everyone who has an event in downtown Santa Cruz needs to be thinking that way, and if we had some kind of events office that was run by something like the Downtown Association, we could promote it jointly and sell tickets jointly and really put Santa Cruz on the map as having the most amazing events."

"But in Santa Cruz, that's a tough proposition," Smith continues. "We're a town of leaders and not a lot of followers, and I love that about Santa Cruz, but it makes it difficult to take everyone in a certain direction."

Smith's words ring true at first, but after seeing Scudder's Blue Maquette, I couldn't help but notice how plain the town looked, and an irony slowly dawned on me. Despite all the progressive leadership in Santa Cruz, the downtown is gradually looking more and more like Main Street, USA. It's no wonder why so many people enjoy coming downtown on occasions like Halloween and First Night--the only nights of the year when the town is transformed from a sterile mall into the fantastic and magical town we all once knew it could be.

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From the December 29, 2004-January 5, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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