Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.

Keeping Missoula's New Year's Eve arts event alive is an art unto itself

  • 0

On a rainy Friday morning, Tom Bensen and a handful of volunteers set up tables and taped posters to the walls of a vacant West Front Street storefront in the Florence Building in preparation for First Night Missoula.

"This is Command Central," said Bensen, the director of First Night Missoula and the nonprofit Missoula Cultural Council.

On New Year's Eve on Saturday, volunteers in the office will use cell phones and ham radios to handle all of the event's communications needs, he said.

Coordination, as always, offers a major logistical problem for an event with more than 100 acts and 400 volunteer workers.

But that's not the only hurdle for First Night - funding has been tough for years. Last year, when First Night did a trial merger with the Cultural Council, the financials looked better than they had since 2000.

"With the merger we eliminated administrative costs. Now the Cultural Council is paying my salary, and First Night is in fact raising money for the Cultural Council," Bensen said.

Bensen hopes the now-permanent arrangement will solidify the event, making it viable for years to come. There are positive signs. Many companies now include a donation to the nonprofit in their yearly budgets, Bensen said.

That wasn't the case only a few years ago. Like the trademarked alcohol-free First Night phenomenon, Missoula's event peaked on Dec. 31, 1999. That year, First Night International issued about 45 short-term licenses for the community-oriented and artsy events, said the organization's director Dave Sullivan.

Headquartered in Binghamton, N.Y., the organization has 123 member cities; 107 communities will be holding events this New Year's Eve. That's about 30 percent less than in 2000, Sullivan said.

But Sullivan resents the suggestion that First Night is past its prime. Four cities joined the organization this year, he said. Other cities have canceled or scaled back festivities this year, but it's hard to find a theme or trend in the closings.

"There's not a blanket reason across the board," he said.

Some don't have enough volunteers, Sullivan said. Some lack financial backing. Others have leadership problems. Still others have reorganized and rebounded.

"Like anything else in the world, there is an ebb and flow to it," he said.

First Night as an event began in Boston in 1976 as part of the city's bicentennial celebrations. The event spread by word of mouth. Two cities approached Boston to start their own events in 1982. Another came in 1983. In 1990, the event began to snowball. Ten cities joined. The next year, 18 more cities celebrated First Night.

In 1993, First Night International was founded to help organize and promote the events. There are three basic ways to license a First Night. A city can apply, an existing nonprofit can take on the project or a new one can be founded, Sullivan said.

Missoula's first First Night was on Dec. 31, 1994, Bensen said.

In 1994, a stand-alone nonprofit called First Night Missoula held the one-night event. For years the event increased gradually in size and scope.

In retrospect, the 1990s were cushy and easy, Bensen said, who came to the organization a few years later. Businesses flush with cash made generous contributions.

And in 1999, the whole concept of First Night simply made a lot of sense. A millennial First Night seemed to be on everyone's minds.

But with the economic downturn of the next few years and the terrorist attacks of 2001, funding got tight.

The nonprofit has always earned about half of its revenues from button sales - more than 8,000 people attended last year, and that number has remained pretty constant, Bensen said. But cash contributions dropped about

5 percent a year from 2000 to 2005, he said.

"We had to put the brakes on. We cut back," Bensen said.

Two years ago, Bensen left First Night, with its annual cash budget of about $95,000, to be head of the Cultural Council, with a budget of about $80,000. Last year, the two nonprofits merged.

"I was the common denominator," Bensen said.

The biggest expense for First Night has always been the artists and performers - this year more than 100 acts, including magicians, comedians, theatrical productions, music and ice carvers. The artists will cost about $35,000, Bensen said. Rental spaces as well as sound and light systems for all the performances can run a sizeable tab, too, he said.

Add to those costs an office and staff, and the balance sheet starts to look like trouble, Bensen said.

But folded into the Cultural Council, which has a contract to run the sister-city program, the numbers look a lot better.

"Any financial adviser will tell you to diversify. That's what the merger did for both organizations," Bensen said.

Reporter Robert Struckman can be reached at 523-5262 or at

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alert

Breaking News