by Leah Sottile

Entry-level arts: that's what Chris Martin, executive director of First Night Spokane, says he's heard upper-crust arts people call the one-stop, all-night, end-of-the-year arts extravaganza. First Night, to them, makes the arts too accessible, too easy and only skin-deep for people who only come out once a year to enjoy the local arts.

Yet Martin says that entry-level is where he wants to see First Night stay. "At first I thought it was bad," he says, " but then I thought, 'Yeah, that's what we are -- [what] we wanna be.'

"We want to attract people at the basic level, and maybe we can launch them to become a subscriber to the symphony or go to the ballet," Martin continues. "That's what sets First Night apart from other events; we try to involve people in the process."

By keeping the event at the basic extravaganza level -- "We're sort of a Disney-esque approach to the arts," Martin says -- people can begin to integrate the arts into their everyday lives, not just once every year. And with past First Night attendance ranging in the mid-20,000s, that's a lot of folks enjoying the arts.

So the story this year is the same from the previous three First Night events: Martin and his crew ensure that the night is a full-on, in your face, nonstop trip through Spokane's arts scene. The one difference is the theme: This year, it's "Hats Alive in 2005," so wear your favorite hat (or just the wildest one). Most downtown restaurants will be open through midnight, and hotels are offering special rates that also include First Day bonuses, like being entered in raffles and reduced entry fees for IMAX, the MAC and the Ice Palace all day on Jan. 1.

As always, the arts are the focus of First Night, ensuring that participants can safely celebrate the New Year. With a schedule saturated by one-of-a-kind things to do, to see and to enjoy, participants don't have time to, say, stop at a bar and have a drink. Because at First Night, there are dancers. There are prancers. There are flame-eaters, skateboarders, comedians and actors. There's just too much to soak up to even find a spare second.

Spokane HEARTSs First Night

Saying that First Night works in every city is false; in fact, there are many cities that can't get the sheer number of people out for the event to make it worth the money. Boise, subject of a recent Inlander cover story, is one of those cities.

Boise was forced to cancel First Night due to poor attendance, poor sponsorship and an overall bad economy after the 2003 event. That money has been funneled back into other arts programs.

But in Spokane, events like First Night just work. What is it that makes Spokane support something like First Night so wholeheartedly?

"One thing about Spokane is that it supports community events," Martin says, referring to festivals like Bloomsday and Hoopfest.

Spokane likes big events -- but particularly big, family-driven, community events that everyone can participate in and enjoy.

"No one in America can say they do the kinds of events that we do. There is such a grassroots effort in this community to make things work," says Martin. "Spokane has developed a reputation for itself nationally to bring great events, based on how the community supports events. We have that undying desire to make things successful."

Martin says he thinks that being able to support and sustain big, festival-like events is getting some attention for Spokane -- and he thinks it's part of the reason the Lilac City was chosen to host the 2007 United States Figure Skating Championships. He says that something like that could have never been achieved without having such large-scale support for local events. By supporting those, even Spokane itself is seeing what potential it has.

"Our community has seen the impact that [First Night has] on the quality of life," Martin says. "I think that everything is a state of mind that you create in your community."

Hats Alive in 2005

Though the goal is the same and many of the old faithful First Night acts will turn up again this year, there are some things that the committee has changed, Martin says, due to past First Nighters' feedback. In particular, the majority of the events will be in a more concentrated "footprint" in the downtown area. This means participants won't have to plan on driving to events across town.

"I think we wanted to bring people closer together," Martin says. "It just makes it more convenient, and our venues are going to be a lot more themed this year."

That energy will all start with the annual opening procession -- a parade unlike any other, according to Martin.

"We have several thousand people participating in that," he says. "It's not the kind of parade where you stand on the sidelines."

With this year's theme, "Hats Alive in 2005," the First Night committee is encouraging people to wear their favorite hat for the event. And you might want to make sure the hat you wear is a warm one - particularly because many of this year's First Night events are being held outdoors. The center for outdoor activity will be at the intersection of Main Avenue and Post Street, outside of River Park Square's main doors. Entertainers, bands and a number of projects will be held in that area.

"We wanted to get some more energy outside," Martin says. "There's music, there's entertainment."

The outdoor area will also feature live demonstrations by a variety of local artists. A Cat's Eye Gallery and the Inland Northwest Glass Guild will hold a glass-blowing demo. Lindley Mixon will show crowds a thing or two about bronze casting during a live demonstration. Ice sculptors, metal workers and wood carvers will complete their delicate works with power tools and chain saws. Most of the artists are local, and Martin says that getting that participation by the region's creative minds has been key to the event's success.

"The local arts community is recognizing First Night as a viable outlet for the arts, and as a way to expose themselves to new audiences," Martin says.

And they can, because for many residents of Spokane, First Night is the only time that they come downtown. But by having that participation by local artists gets people to come downtown more often, Martin says.

"We give people the opportunity to experience the arts, but we also give them the opportunity to experience downtown. It's the cool thing to come downtown. It's not like going to suburban strip mall," he says. "Our goal is to get people coming downtown. Just come downtown and hang out. Then they realize how fun it is."

For details on the schedule, pick up your official First Night guide wherever Inlanders are distributed. And for highlights of First Night's musical lineup, check our music section on page 36.

Publication date: 12/30/04

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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...