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Jul 23, 2010

Arts festivals: something for everyone, and maybe that’s the problem

The problem with arts festivals, says Curtain Call blogger Jana Perkovic, is they want to be all things to all people. The result is generally pretty bland.


On the occasion of the announcement of Melbourne International Arts Festival’s 2010 program, let’s begin with a counter-intuitive diagnosis: MIAF’s first problem is that it gets too much funding. Its second problem is that it gets too little.

In the past years, I have often watched in puzzlement as swords were crossed over MIAF programming (especially re: Kristy Edmunds, who was viciously attacked in the press for her “fringe” taste), until realising that MIAF is simply asked to be too many things for too many people.

Right from the beginning, the state of Victoria (its initiator and primary funder) conceived of the festival as a double flagship event: a boost for tourism, a big-audience commercial spectacle on the one hand, and a showcase of Melbourne’s cultural finesse on the other. The mass and the fine, together. Since there has never been an artistic concept behind the festival (it was going to present neither contemporary opera, nor classical music, nor new forms, nor established local artists — but anything and all, depending on the whims of the artistic director and the pressures from the stakeholders), there could never be a ready justification for any programming choice.

Furthermore, for Victorian artists, by and large, MIAF should be a commissioner, giving them an opportunity to reach a wider local and international audience, and a programmer, introducing them to the finest overseas performance (a kind of industry event). For the more conservative arts patrons in Melbourne, on the other hand, afflicted by that terrible thing we call cultural cringe, MIAF should bring tried-and-tested cultural mainstream (such as the London Philharmonic, or some decent classical opera) to give them a sense that this, too, is a world-class city — but also to compensate for the lack of decent middlebrow theatre throughout the year. Finally, for the large majority of the arts-disinterested in this town, ready to doubt the necessity to spend any money on any arts (but also for sponsors and some outspoken commentators), MIAF needs to justify its existence by providing free, accessible fun for every citizen of every age.

There is no way out of this tangle, and no amount of thinking it through (international exposure is relatively more significant for one artist’s livelihood than free street circus could ever be for an arts-sceptical family of four) will get us an unequivocal answer as to what would be fair. In the lack of a clear concept or popular agreement, we have seen the festival vacillate, sometimes being more concerned with selling tickets, sometimes with artistic cohesion, most often trying to please everyone with a bit of popular music, a bit of classical music, a bit of experimental theatre, and so forth.

However, there is a deeper reason (or two) why MIAF is so controversial. The first is its wealth. At $10 million (of which $6 million is state funding) it is one of the richest arts operations in Victoria, vastly wealthier than many institutions with year-long programming that form the backbone of Melbourne’s arts. Since the rest of the year already fails to satisfy our cultural needs (for example, with a dearth of opera, good mainstream theatre, and ANY international programming), it is little wonder that MIAF’s budget is so contested. With almost double the money to spend in three weeks than the Malthouse, Melbourne’s second biggest theatre, has to get through the year, MIAF is rightly seen to have a genuine obligation towards every single citizen of Victoria.

Which brings us to the second problem: why is MIAF the only such entity we have? Let’s leave aside the questions of producing opera or quality middlebrow, and look at international programming. There is currently, in Victoria, no other organisation specifically committed to bringing non-Australian theatre over (despite some rare examples at the Dancehouse and recently Malthouse, and the shiny exception of the Artshouse, which has in the past 12 months shown strong commitment to bringing over excellent new niche work). Melbourne’s institutions have made no effort to engage with the international trends as Sydney Opera House and even the Sydney Theatre Company have, bringing good, contemporary performance companies of all genres. We have no other international theatre festivals. Why not? I don’t know, but in the context of a complete absence year-round, suddenly that $10 million doesn’t look like much.

Passing through Ljubljana recently, it was an eye-opener to see, casually hanging, posters advertising an upcoming Béjart Ballet performance. In Melbourne, that would easily be the event of the year; in the capital of Slovenia, which at 200,000 inhabitants is the size of Geelong, it was an important, but not-too-extraordinary event. Such international visits are more commonplace in Slovenia not just because arts are more valued and operate on higher budgets, but also because it is much cheaper to get such acts to a country in the centre of Europe. If we are serious about being involved in the global arts despite our geographical disadvantage, both as artists and as audiences, $10 million starts to look like very little indeed.


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