From 1920s onwards, light art gained a poriment spot 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. 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 driving force, they organized 'Winter Magic Amsterdam in 2010, with - alongside the boat parade - several activities. Internationally renowned light designer Rogier van der Heide created a special light design for Amsterdam's most iconic bridge, the Skinny Brigde, and suggested the festival to focus on light art, which was embraced.
After a one-year break, Guttmann with Van der Heide and event organizer Raymond Borsboom developed the first edition of Amsterdam Light Festival in 2012. The focus definitely shifted from entertainment to light art, which provided a winning formula. For seven weeks breathtaking light art objects placed along the canals could be admired from the comfort of a boat. The entire city fell in love with '1.26 Amsterdam' by American artist Janet Echelman. In addition, during the Christmas Holidays there was a walking route through the Plantage neighbourhood called 'Illuminade'. Large-scale installations by world-famous light artists were placed along the Amstel river.
The water route was expanded further and was given a new name - 'Water Colors' - which turned out to be a big success. The public enjoyed the opportunity to admire the artworks comfortably from a boat and 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 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 had 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. 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 has now outgrown its infancy.
After five years, Van der Heide resigned 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 during Edition #7. The official opening was performed by mayor Femke Halsema. Artists from all over the world participated in the festival, but the limited edition of Edition #7 is from the hand of a Dutch artist. Jeroen Henneman was guest of honour and designed 'One Lamp'. It was the last edition to follow the traditional route through the center of the city.
During Edition #8, the festival moved to 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 apparant, the whole city was dominated by DISRUPT!. As the cerry on top, 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 listen to stories online.