Arthur Fiedler became conductor of the Pops in 1929

Arts and Culture for the People of Boston

Arts and cultural activities are integral to the social fabric of the lives of the people of this country—and few places have made a deeper commitment to bringing arts and culture to the public than Boston. In fact, in a 2003 survey commissioned by the Boston Foundation, it was revealed that on a per capita basis, Boston has a higher number of arts and cultural nonprofits than numerous other large cities, including New York. In addition, Boston’s 640 arts and cultural nonprofits contribute more than $800 million to the local economy. A number of Boston’s arts and cultural organizations and initiatives have provided national models—and one of the city’s cultural innovations has even changed the way people around the world bring in the new year.

The Boston Pops

On Saturday, July 11, 1885, a large crowd showed up at the Boston Music Hall for the first ever ‘promenade’ concert. The Boston Symphony Orchestra had promised them that the program for these concerts would be made up largely of light music of the best class. Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of Boston Symphony Orchestra, had proposed the new series in the hope of re-creating the ambience of summer evenings in the concert gardens of Vienna, where he had been a music student. He also wanted to provide summer employment for the members of the Boston Symphony. It was the start of one of America’s most-loved musical institutions.

The modern Boston Pops era began when Arthur Fiedler became its conductor in 1929—a position he held for the next 50 years. During his first summer as conductor, on July 4th, he inaugurated the famous Esplanade Concerts held on the east bank of the Charles River. From the very beginning, Fiedler made his breadth of taste known by programming the kind of music that was then described as “symphonic jazz.” The national public television program “Evening at the Pops” was launched in 1969, as a joint production of WGBH-TV in Boston and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Today, through a live experience on the Esplanade and a national broadcast, millions of Americans enjoy the July 4th concerts. One hundred years after the Boston Pops was founded, the critic Richard Dyer wrote, “Within its first century [the Pops] has become one of the things that define our American experience.”

The First “First Night” in the World

In 1976, a local artist and community activist named Clara Wainwright invited other artists and friends to her home to discuss the various ways that each of them had celebrated New Year’s Eve. The challenge she put to them was to create a new tradition to replace Guy Lombardo, the Time’s Square ball and party hats. The conversation was wild and unfocused, but eventually a very clear picture of an event emerged. Those gathered bemoaned how small a role Boston’s rich and varied cultural life played in marking the end of the year—and they expressed the idea of turning New Years Eve festivities into a safe, community-centered family event that would blur the line between performers and audience members. They had the idea of staging performances in Boston’s churches, so that churches once again could serve as the social centers which they had been in the city’s early days. People would be encouraged to come in costumes and masks, so that there would be little difference between the observer and the observed. It was decided that artists would be encouraged to act as catalysts in helping people understand the complex notion of saying good-bye to their old lives and hello to their new ones. One of the participants suggested that it be called the “Boston Common Garden Variety Show.” Later, the group decided to call their new celebration “First Night.”

Since the inaugural “First Night” in 1976, the celebration has grown from
a small arts event to a sophisticated, permanent arts organization that annually showcases work by Boston’s multicultural arts community in venues as diverse as churches, storefronts, subway stops, streets, plazas, theaters, and, of course, the venerable Boston Common.

Artist Clara Wainwright (left) and friends created the first “First Night,” which has served as a model for more than 200 similar celebrations worldwide

Over the course of some three decades, First Night has also grown from attracting 25,000 people to drawing crowds of a million or more. A unique concept that originated in Boston, First Night now serves as a model for more than 200 similar celebrations worldwide.