From the 1920's onwards, light art gained a prominent stage in the public space of large European cities, also in Amsterdam. In October 1929 the first Dutch 'light event' took place: The Edison Light Week. Various buildings were decorated with light bulbs, which attracted large groups of curious visitors. There was an illuminated Fokker airplane circling above the city and a water parade, where illuminated boats made their rounds on the canals. The Amsterdam Energy Company (GEB) illuminated the city until it was privatized in the 1990s. The desire to make the city attractive again with light prompted various Amsterdam entrepreneurs to develop new initiatives. For instance, 'Yule' was organized twice, in 2003 and 2004.
Amsterdam Light Festival originated from the 'Christmas Canal Parade', held for the first time in 2009. The first people involved were Vincent Horbach, Henk Jan Buchel, Felix Guttmann, Raymond Borsboom and Rogier van der Heide.
In 2010 they organized 'Winter Magic Amsterdam', with a boat parade and multiple side activities. Raymond Borsboom was responsible for the management, together with a team. Internationally recognized light designer Rogier van der Heide illuminated the iconic Skinny Bridge for three weeks and suggested that the festival should concentrate on light art from then on. This led to a new focus: Amsterdam Light Festival was born.
For the first time, residents and visitors could enjoy a route of light art objects on the canals from a boat, for 7 weeks. Along the Amstel River, large installations were placed, created by renowned artists. Visitors fell in love with the magical '1.26 Amsterdam' by Janet Echelman (US). During the Christmas Holidays, an additional route was enjoyed through the Plantagebuurt, named 'Illuminade'. The third Christmas Canal Parade - shaped by creative producer Wim Dröge - attracted 100.000 visitors.
The water route was expanded further and received a new, catchy name: 'Water Colors'. Visitors enjoyed the opporunity to view the artworks close by, from the comfort of a boat. International media accelerated the recognition of the festival. Van der Heide managed to get the iconic 'Fly's Eye Dome' by architect Buckminster Fuller to Amsterdam.
The Water Colors route was a huge success. In addition to the canal cruise companies, the people from Amsterdam joined with their own boats. The festival started its partnership with Amsterdam Creative Industries Network, to make an innovative light artwork every year in collaboration with students from the HvA and the Breitner Academy. Mayor Eberhard van der Laan became patron of the festival. The festival earned the status of a traditional family winter outing.
Princess Beatrix opened the festival, which further reinforced the recognition of light art as a genre of art. It also underlined the lasting value of the artworks. The festival started its first international collaboration to present light artworks from its own ‘collection’ at events in other cities. For example, the team in Amsterdam was responsible for the first Norrköping Light Festival. At Sloterdijk railway station, a work by Tijdmakers was permanently installed.
Amsterdam Light Festival celebrated its fifth anniversary. In addition to international artists, major architects took part in the festival. For example, work by Ben van Berkel's UN studio, Benthem Crouwel Architects and the Singapore office DP Architects were exhibited. Almost a million people visited the festival, which affirmed the international recognition of Amsterdam Light Festival.
After five years, Van der Heide withdrew as artistic director and was succeeded by Lennart Booij. While Raymond Borsboom focused on developing international collaborations, Frédérique ter Brugge took on the managing directorship of the festival. Felix Guttmann perpetuated his involvement as chairman. At the invitation of the festival, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei created the installation ‘Thinline’. The routes were now referred to as 'Water' and 'Land', where the walking route moved to the Marineterrein.
Under the direction of managing director Frédérique ter Brugge and artistic director Lennart Booij, 29 artworks were on display in the centre of Amsterdam. The festival was formally opened by mayor Femke Halsema. Artists from all over the world participated in the festival and the limited edition 'One Lamp' was created by Dutch artist and guest of honor Jeroen Henneman. It was the last edition to follow the original route through the center of the city.
During Edition 8, the festival moved to Amsterdam Centre-East. A new route meant new connections and new stories. During this edition there was not only light art to experience; visitors could set off during 'The Sleep Walk' in ARTIS and audio and visuals came together during SKALAR. Never before had the theme of an edition been so apparent, the whole city was dominated by 'DISRUPT!'. Furthermore, mayor Femke Halsema became patroness of the festival.
The year of the pandemic. A large scale event with a boat and walking route was soon abolished, but the drive to bring light during these very dark days was still present. Under the creative direction of Lucas De Man and by means of unique partnerships, 7 artworks were realized, which were placed all over the city. Each artwork had its own story under the central theme 'When Nature Calls' and those who were not able to see the works in real life, could follow the stories online.
Ten years of Amsterdam Light Festival! The anniversary edition - with the corresponding theme 'Celebrate Light' - drew hundreds of thousands of visitors, despite the restrictive Covid-19 measures. The art was a beacon of light for many people during a difficult period of lockdown. The route consisted of the highlights of the past editions, but there were also new works, such as 'Darth Fisher' by Amsterdam-based artist Streetart Frankey. At the policlinic of the Amsterdam UMC (location VUmc) the artwork 'Today I Love You' was placed permanently.