First Night Austin

Going forward despite the turbulence

The news earlier in August that First Night Austin's executive director had resigned had a distressingly familiar ring to it. It was three years ago this very month that the arts organization released the very same news. Then, it was First Night Austin's first executive director, Ann S. Graham, who left the job over, as the Chronicle reported then, her pay being furloughed due to fundraising problems and her and the board's "conflicting visions for the event and of the executive director's role in it." So is it déjà vu all over again? Not exactly, although the raising of funds appears to be at the root of the matter. While First Night Austin officials are being guarded about what prompted the unexpected departure of the most recent executive director, Dave Sullivan, this much is clear: Sponsorships and money that Sullivan was responsible for securing were not in place, and with only five months until New Year's Eve, it was crunch time for the organization in terms of having the funds necessary to produce its annual end-of-the-year extravaganza.

That Sullivan should resign after only a year is all the more surprising given the fanfare with which he arrived in July 2008. He was chosen after a national search by the FNA board and boasted an extensive history with First Night – initially serving as director of corporate relations with First Night Boston and as vice president and executive director with First Night International, the organization that authorizes and monitors the family-oriented celebration in more than 100 cities nationwide and outside the U.S. As First Night Austin had been run by two other directors in the two years following Graham's departure – Ginny Sanders and, after her, in an interim capacity, Patricia Paredes – Sullivan had been seen as a stabilizing force in the organization's leadership.

Well, as it's turned out, that hasn't been the case, and with funding in question and no director four months out from the event, an obvious question arises: Will there be a First Night in 2009? Yes, insists Paredes, who is still on the FNA board and serves as the organization's spokesperson. "We need the event to happen this year, and the city expects it," she says. "We're doing everything we can behind the scenes to make it happen." By "we," she means the board members, who have decided not to hire another executive director before this year's event but to divide the responsibilities that would ordinarily fall to that person amongst themselves. That includes lining up those all-important sponsors, which Paredes says should be complete by the end of September. The board has also launched a drive to raise additional cash for First Night Austin, as well as broaden public awareness of the event: the 5 x 5 Campaign, soliciting donations of $5 (or more, of course) to support year five of First Night Austin. Paredes points out that First Night Austin is one of only two of the dozens and dozens of First Night celebrations around the country that still does not charge for the event, and something as simple as a $5 gift from many of the 100,000-plus Central Texans who have shown up for each of the first four Austin events would help ensure that the local celebration remains free this year and for years to come. Donations may be made via PayPal on the FNA website – – or may be mailed to First Night Austin, PO Box 684867, Austin, TX 78768.

That First Night Austin is still going forward is a relief, but it doesn't erase the lingering question of why the organization has seen so much turnover in leadership in so little time. Paredes, who has spent time in the hot seat of the director herself, offers one perspective: "I believe it's due to the sheer magnitude of what the executive director is asked to do. Planning and executing an event for more than 100,000 people is a continual, year-round juggling act; the E.D. is managing relations with sponsors, the city, donors, volunteers, and artists simultaneously – a feat that can be stressful at times. Additionally, the E.D. is charged with fundraising – which, depending on economic times, can be challenging – as well as implementing the artistic vision for the event." Also, most arts organizations comparable to FNA reach that size over years, so their learning curve for managing a large-scale event can be gradual. First Night Austin started huge and has had to learn as it goes, meaning its missteps may be bigger and more conspicuous.

But, Paredes stresses, that doesn't mean certain problems will always persist. "We will find an executive director who is capable and that will be a good fit. We just haven't found that person yet. It is our intent to have that person in place by the end of January 2010."

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