Already in the 1920s, light art gained a prominent place in public space in large cities in Europe, including Amsterdam. In October 1929, the first major Dutch "light event" took place here, the Edison Light Week. Various buildings in the city were decorated with light bulbs for the occasion, attracting large groups of curious visitors. An enlightened Fokker airplane even made sightseeing flights low above the city and there was a water parade of decorated boats.
In Amsterdam, the municipal energy company (the GEB) atmospherically illuminated the canals in the city for decades, until the company was privatised at the end of the 1990s. The desire to make the city centre attractive again with light prompted a number of Amsterdam entrepreneurs to jointly develop new initiatives. For example, Yule was organised twice in 2003 - 2004. In 2009, Vincent Horbach and Henk Jan Buchel took the initiative for the Christmas Canal Parade with decorated boats. With canal company owner Felix Guttmann as driver force, they organised Winter Magic Amsterdam in 2010, with alongside the boat parade - which was designed with creative producer Wim Dröge - several activities.
After a one-year break, Guttmann - together with Rogier van der Heide and event organiser Raymond Borsboom - developed the first edition of Amsterdam Light Festival in 2012. The focus definitely shifted from entertainment to light art. For seven weeks there was a water route and, in addition, during the Christmas holidays there was a walking route through the Plantage neighbourhood named Illuminade. Large-scale installations by world-famous light artists were placed along the Amstel.
The water route was expanded further and was given a new name “Water Colors”, which worked very well. The public enjoyed the opportunity to admire the artworks comfortably in a boat from close by. International media ensured rapid expansion of the awareness. Artistic director Van der Heide brought 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 Amsterdammers also went en masse on their own boats, and rowers and open sloops faced the cold. 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 started earned a spot on the list of traditional family winter outings.
Princess Beatrix performed the opening; a recognition that light art as an art genre was maturing. 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. And at Sloterdijk railway station, a work by Tijdmakers was permanently installed after the festival had closed.
Amsterdam Light Festival celebrates its fifth anniversary. In addition to international artists, major architects take part in the festival: for example, work by Ben van Berkel's UN studio, Benthem Crouwel Architects and the Singapore office DP Architects. Almost a million people visit the festival, which has outgrown its infancy.
After five years, Rogier van der Heide resigns as artistic director and is succeeded by Lennart Booij. While Raymond Borsboom focuses on developing international collaborations, Frédérique ter Brugge takes on the managing directorship of the festival. Felix Guttmann perpetuates his involvement as chairman.
At the invitation of the festival Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei created the installation ‘thinline’. The routes are now referred to as “Water” and “Land”, where the walking route (Land) moves from the Plantage neighbourhood to the Marineterrein.
Under the direction of business director Frédérique ter Brugge and artistic director Lennart Booij, 29 artworks were on display in the center of Amsterdam during Edition #7. The official opening was done by Femke Halsema. Artists from all over the world participate in the festival, but the limited edition of Edition #7 is from a Dutch artist. Jeroen Henneman was guest of honor and designed 'One Lamp'. It was the last edition to follow the traditional route through the center of the city.
The festival moved to Centrum-Oost during Edition #8. A new route means new connections and new stories. During this Edition there was not only light art to experience; the visitor could set off during 'The Sleep walk' in ARTIS and audio and visuals came together during the spectacular SKALAR. Never before has the theme of an edition been so pronounced; the whole city was dominated by DISRUPT !. As icing on the cake, mayor Femke Halsema became the patroness of the festival.
Over the years, Amsterdam Light Festival has undergone major developments. But our mission has remained unchanged: to this day, the annual festival lights up Amsterdam for its residents and visitors during the dark months, introduces light art and artists to a large audience, and boost the Amsterdam economy, the light industry and innovation.