A year ago this spring, my husband and I did something we never do. We walked Baltimore’s Inner Harbor at night. The prevailing sentiment among most Baltimoreans is that the Inner Harbor is the place for tourists and conventioneers. But this evening was different. As my husband and I approached the water, we saw enormous crowds lining the 1.5-mile promenade. Sidewalks normally deserted after dusk were jammed, and on an expanse of concrete next to one of downtown’s busiest multilane roads hundreds of people appeared to be dancing. We soon realized the source: an interactive display of circular lights on the ground, called “The Pool.” The installation, by Brooklyn, N.Y.–based artist Jen Lewin, was composed of customized polyethylene shells housing multicolored LED strips that reacted to movement. Kids and adults laughed and hopped, as music played and the discs shifted hue.
The reason for this unusual revelry was the inaugural Light City Baltimore, a free annual event that launched in March 2016 and included installations along (and in) the water, as well as live performances, neighborhood installations, and a multiday ticketed conference aimed at addressing cultural and social strategies for the postindustrial city. Just a year after Baltimorean’s protested in the streets in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, when the city had been shuttered with an imposed curfew and National Guard tanks, a diverse mix of city residents were now out en masse for a very different reason. Light installations—commissioned from established international designers as well as local artists and architects—ranged from the playful to the political, including one poignant large-scale projection that portrayed critical issues of police violence, education, recreation, and housing in Baltimore.
As we navigated the crowds and perused the installations, we kept bumping into people we knew, all of whom had the same reaction: “I can’t remember the last time I hung out at the Harbor.”
Part of the goal of Light City, which kicked off its second annual event this spring (March 31 to April 8), is to reclaim the Inner Harbor as a space for residents. “There’s been this perception that the Harbor is only for tourists and you have to have a lot of money to enjoy it,” says Kathy Hornig, festivals director at the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA), which spearheaded the event. “That’s not true, and it’s contrary to how [developer] James Rouse envisioned the harbor over 40 years ago. He wanted it to be the city’s playground.”
Of all the ways to invest in Baltimore, planners galvanized around the idea of a light festival because, as Hornig explains, “there is magic behind the power of light to transform a city and to let everyone reimagine a space that they are familiar with in their day-to-day lives—to see it, literally, in a new light.”
The Global Rise of Light Festivals
Baltimore is not alone in using light to transform the urban experience. Around the globe, “a lot of places are thinking about light as a way to change the city,” says Mark Burton-Page, general director of the Lyon, France–based Lighting Urban Community International (LUCI). Founded in 2002, LUCI is an international network of cities and lighting professionals who promote and use light as an urban and economic development tool. “A number of mayors around the world see that light is a cornerstone for many different policies,” Burton-Page says.
LUCI advocates for those policies—from technological innovations that can sustainably light civic infrastructure to better understanding issues such as light pollution. LUCI also supports the planning, and tracks the rise, of light festivals. Of the 70 cities that are members of the LUCI network, 43 have established light festivals. “Many of those have been started in the past five years,” Burton-Page says.
The reason for the uptick is due, in part, to the success of several established festivals in cities such as Amsterdam and Eindhoven, both of which are in the Netherlands, and what is perhaps the most influential light festival, Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights), in Lyon. Each year, Lyon’s multiday festival takes over the city and the waterfront with installations from international artists and designers, attracting upwards of a million people and garnering international press. They also host global forums. “You have artists, innovators, urban planners, mayors, gathered for these events and it’s a good time to think about the city itself. Many festivals take the opportunity during the day to create conferences and additional exhibitions,” Burton-Page says.
The Fête des Lumières has also evolved into a launch pad for young and experimental artists, and this is a model that is being exported to other cities: Lyon’s event coordinators consult with cities such as Montreal, Shanghai, and Bogotá, Colombia.
But exporting a festival like Lyon’s is not as simple as creating a flashy light show to attract tourists. The tradition of lighting the city dates back to Dec. 8, 1848, when the residents of Lyon spontaneously lit candles in their windows to celebrate civic pride after a particularly challenging time of political upheaval and natural disasters that included flooding. This grassroots gesture continued and by the 1980s, the city formalized an urban lighting plan to illuminate its historic buildings after dark. It is this connection to community that accounts, in part, for the festival’s longevity. In the wake of the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris, the festival, after serious deliberation on the part of its organizers, canceled the event and instead called for a day of illuminated tribute, which resulted in an uptick in the sales of candles to light homes throughout the city. “Five times more candles were sold than ever before; a wonderful testament to the values of fraternity of the Festival of Light,” says Gérard Collomb, who is both mayor of Lyon and the Rhone district’s representative in the French Senate. “One of the most important things is that a light festival should be anchored into a local community,” Burton-Page says. “That’s why Lyon is so successful.”
Economics and Innovation
Another reason light festivals have become so attractive is because of their economic impact. A few years ago, LUCI commissioned a report to study the fiscal feasibility of light festivals in several cities and it found the return on investment (ROI) to be solid. “In some cities, you see an investment of $1 returning as much as $3.50,” Burton-Page says.
In addition to these immediate gains, light festivals have the potential to burnish the reputation of a place. “One long-term impact is the image of the city,” Burton-Page says. “One of the global challenges is that cities are in competition with each other to attract citizens—they want more qualified workers, more universities and businesses. It’s interesting to have this event where you welcome people together and see the great urban spaces in a new light.”
But successful festivals are about more than mere entertainment—they foster innovation in lighting. Since 2011, the Amsterdam Light Festival, which runs from December through January and attracts around 800,000 people a year, has put out an international call for artists to bring their most experimental work to the city. Lennart Booij is the artistic director for the 2017 event and he helped develop this year’s theme of “Existentialism.” Before the last festival was even over, Booij had received some 500 submissions from 85 countries. An international jury will select a group of finalists and these artists will develop their designs with the assistance of experts. This, Booij says, gets at the heart of the event.
“We are a makers’ festival,” Booij says. “We have an artist’s meeting in April where we help people present their first ideas, and then we ask them to come back in September for the annual Makers Festival to show their prototypes. … We want people to challenge the technical aspects of light. We think the installations need to be structural and of real quality, not only projections. We want to stretch the possibilities … and we hope that people do something on the next level.”
In addition to being a catalyst for tourism and innovation, light festivals can promote social cohesion in the places they are held. Helen Marriage is the director of London-based arts and event firm Artichoke who has, since 2009, run Lumiere, a biannual festival in Durham, in the north of England. This light festival, the United Kingdom’s largest, is held in the tiny historic town with a population of just about 40,000. “Durham [is] a historic heritage place,” Marriage says. “They’ve got an old castle and a cathedral, and people come on coach trips, and they walk the cobbled streets, and then they leave.”
Outside of tourism, however, Durham’s economy is flailing. The coal and steel industries have left a younger generation looking for work. “That economic deprivation is countered in a way by this brief moment of light in darkness,” Marriage says. “What Lumiere has done is it’s given the citizens the confidence that they can be known for things other than history, that they can be known for the vibrancy of a living city. There’s a whole way you can offer back the city to people.”
Lumiere curates each individual light installation to be site specific. Artists are brought in beforehand to tour the city and choose their project site. “We’re working with the built architecture and the natural landscape to try and tell stories,” Marriage says. “In that transformation of a physical building or a familiar structure, you can engender a range of emotion in people so they feel differently about the place.”
Artichoke partners renowned artists with community members on projects that are created and designed by the citizens. “We like to showcase the work of international artists alongside, and with no distinction from, the artists in the community,” Marriage says.
As Baltimore geared up for its second Light City, organizers increased their investment to include funding for more local artists, and expanded the festival into eight neighborhoods, with the aim of making this a citywide event. So far, the investment seems to be paying off. Last year’s event generated $33.8 million in direct economic impact just from out-of-town spending. Of the estimated 400,000 people who attended in 2016, 70 percent were locals. The biggest sign of success for Hornig, though, was a post-event survey that showed a high number of repeat visits. “People loved it so much, they came back multiple nights,” she says. That said, Hornig hopes Light City becomes more than just a celebration; she wants it to be a spotlight on local talent. “Our vision is for this festival to literally shine a light on the creative innovators who live and work in Baltimore every day of the year,” Hornig says. •