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Illumine 2019: An Interview with Richard Harker and Cooper Sanchez

Illumine 2019 invites Oakland’s visitors to explore Oakland Cemetery after dark and see its history, beauty, and gardens illuminated in striking and unusual ways. Oakland’s Director of Programming, Richard Harker, and Illumine Creative Director, Cooper Sanchez, share this behind-the-scenes look into their vision for Illumine 2019.

How did Illumine 2019 come to be?

Cooper: Over the years there have been repeated discussions about a creative, recurring spring event that celebrates the in-bloom gardens and the amazing spring-evening weather. April and May are a beautiful time to be at Oakland, and we love the opportunity to put together a thoughtful, inspiring and engaging experience outside of our busy fall season. In 2016, Illumine was an extension of Arts at Oakland and was a success in many ways. We had a beautiful evening that illuminated Oakland with lighting and artistic pieces. Richard fully embraced the original concept behind Illumine (as well as the lessons learned) and quickly began structuring and streamlining the event into something that could be perennially curated and produced by the incredibly talented staff and volunteers at Oakland.

Richard: Over the years, Cooper has done such a terrific job of bringing artistic programming to Oakland and helping to remind us that these 48 acres are as much an artistic space as they are a historic site. Arts at Oakland was created to make programming around the arts an annual part of the Oakland calendar, and as it has expanded over the years, we’ve learned so much. Illumine 2016 demonstrated how much our visitors enjoy exploring this unique place after dark and seeing a creative light shone on Oakland. After a rain-out in 2017, the incredible reception to last year’s award-winning Golden Hour exhibition (with the amazing folks at Dashboard) really encouraged us to expand our spring programming to multiple nights. So, we’re taking everything we’ve learned from these experiences and presenting Illumine 2019: a four night, creative lighting experience to highlighting some of Oakland’s hidden (and most interesting, in my opinion) stories and allowing our visitors and friends to see Oakland in a new light (sorry about all the light-related puns).

What are you most excited about with Illumine 2019?

Cooper: This event has a core group of invested creatives that have the talent and vision to make this year’s Illumine even more beautiful and provocative than anything we’ve done before. There are so many good ideas on the table, and it has been really fun deciding on the stories and areas of the Cemetery that we want to focus on. Any event needs a solid creative team, and over the years as we’ve met more artists, lighting folks, and talented artisans. I truly feel that we have the right people in place to make 2019’s Illumine the best artistic experience that HOF has ever offered.

Richard: I agree with Cooper. We have such talented people involved with Illumine this year—artists, filmmakers, light engineers, and craftspeople—that the experience of visiting Oakland during those four nights in May will truly be breathtaking. I’m also really excited about the stories we will get to highlight this year. In the coming months, we’ll be previewing some of those stories here on our blog and on our social media channels, but the opportunity to highlight some of the previously little-appreciated or often unnoticed parts of the Cemetery such as North Public Grounds and Slave Square is really exciting. Oakland’s size and the number of stories within its walls also allow us to already be thinking ahead and cooking up some big things for Illumine 2020, too!

What do you think people will experience when they come to Illumine?

Richard: Illumine is a self-guided experience for our visitors along a lighted route. We’ve chosen sections of the Cemetery with rich, unique, or untold stories to feature; headstones, mausoleum, stained glass, and historic structures to highlight; and blooming gardens to emphasize. There will be sections—especially right in front of the Bell Tower— that Cooper and I have been calling “choose your own adventure,” where visitors will be able to explore the grid of the Victorian gardens and encounter plantings, headstones and other features illuminated by our creative team in ways that will make you stop in your tracks and see this beautiful place in a way that you never even imagined.

[I]n the end, it will also be a creative spring party in a captivating setting with music, craft cocktails and the special atmosphere that takes over Oakland after hours.

Cooper: Artistically-lit events are increasingly popular, and rightly so. However, Illumine is more than just lightbulbs: It will shed light on the history, people and ideas of Oakland Cemetery as well as light up the beauty of the gardens, structures and, pathways. The meaning of the word Illumine is “to light up and brighten.” But it also means “to enlighten spiritually or intellectually,” and our goal is to provide a transformative experience for each and every visitor who comes to Oakland for Illumine. And in the end, it will also be a creative spring party in a captivating setting with music, craft cocktails and the special atmosphere that takes over Oakland after hours. I’m confident that all of our visitors will not only have fun with family and friends but also learn a thing or two while seeing their favorite Cemetery in a new way.

Richard: Yes, don’t forget the cocktails! Illumine will definitely be fun and unique. Opportunities to explore the Cemetery after dark in such a way are incredibly rare, and we think this will be a fun and enjoyable way to see Oakland for the first time or for our returning visitors to see these historic 48 acres in a new light.

What’s different from Illumine in 2016?

Richard: One of our greatest takeaways from Illumine 2016 was that we probably sold a few too many tickets. The paths and route were a wee bit crowded and we really felt like that took away from the visitor experience. So, this year we’re limiting the number of tickets that will be available for each night of Illumine so that our visitors can explore Oakland and this year’s route at a leisurely pace while also enjoying a private, personal experience away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Cooper: Richard knows what it takes to continually improve and develop the events at Oakland (both old and new). With more organization and a great team, Illumine 2019 will expand on what we did in 2016. Back then, Illumine was one night and it was a bit of an unknown experiment. In During that time, we learned a huge amount about putting on a big outdoor show like this—especially when it comes to logistical considerations such as lighting and electricity—and we’re excited to apply what we’ve learned and to repeat the powerful artistic experience that we created in 2016.

How can people buy tickets?

Richard: Each evening will have its capacity limited to ensure the best possible experience for those in attendance. We’re already close to selling out Saturday night so be sure to get your tickets soon.

For full information and FAQs about Illumine 2019 visit the Illumine event page on our website.

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