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.

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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 both 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 last 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 those $10 million don’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.

But another thing that smaller and geographically marginal European countries have long discovered is that smallness allows focus. As the grand all-arts fiesta has become an inflexible dinosaur, I’ve seen tiny festivals emerge at a fraction of the cost. Run on small budgets, but with a strong conceptual backbone, they spread themselves throughout the year and avoid audience fatigue. Some of the most successful have been magnificently fringe: international showcases of contemporary circus, of medieval music, of site-specific theatre. By focusing on the best examples of a single form, they also teach their audience about the possibilities of a genre, without having to wrestle their attention from free juggling acts, big-name concerts and the London Philharmonic all at once. Alison Croggon is right to worry whether festivals are what we have instead of culture, but if we accept that festivals can be crucial in forming and informing otherwise isolated cultures, why not look at how we can do it even better?

In Australia, music and film festivals have already adopted this approach, but in performing arts it seems we are still convinced there’s only one audience. Well, is there a real need to constantly pit those who want to see the Royal Shakespeare Company do Hamlet against those who would much rather spend the money on Les Ballets C de la B? Perhaps we could solve MIAF-related problems if we stopped trying to kill all our cultural programming deficiencies with one stone, and simply dissolved one mammoth festival into many smaller ones.

A smaller, more international festival in 2010

With all this in mind, what to say about the 2010 program? With 908 artists presenting an undisclosed number of works in not-quite three weeks, it’s an overkill. But, being a Brett Sheehy festival, it is also smaller than his predecessor’s were, favouring big international guests over local artists. I am personally pleased: most of these artists have never been seen in Melbourne, and many are important names in contemporary performance. Those $10 million may as well be spent on bringing them over.

As an argument for the small-and-focused, it seems MIAF’s Festival Bar is getting stronger every year. A festival-within-a-festival of alternative music, and for many Melburnians the only part to attend, it has had record attendances in 2009, and is back with Japan’s Boredoms, Cambodia’s Dengue Fever and a number of Australian bands at a very affordable $20 a pop.

Sheehy has professed a predilection for Germanic theatre, and it is nice to see some highly esteemed names in this year’s line-up. Toneelgroep Amsterdam, which has produced highly regarded multi-medial takes on both films (La grande bouffe) and classical plays (their three-hour compilation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra was lauded by Lyn Garner as “about as good as theatre gets” and by Andrew Hayden as “some of the most outstanding Shakespeare I’ve ever seen”), are presenting a theatre version of John Cassavetes’ film Opening Night. Heiner Goebbels, a living legend of German theatre, is bringing his acclaimed performance with no performers, Stifters Dinge; and the highlight of the season is likely to be the Danish company Hotel Pro Forma, whose Tomorrow, In a Year (pictured) has been reported as revolutionising contemporary musical theatre (and which has been misinterpreted in The Age as a contemporary opera, which in strictly musical terms it ain’t: the music has been composed by the Swedish electro-pop duo The Knife, and released as an electro-pop album earlier this year). Hotel Pro Forma is the kind of company that performance scholars write treatises on, so I hope for the best.

Apart from more experimental theatre, this year’s program is particularly strong on visual and sound art amalgams. Bill Viola’s video artwork is absolutely exceptional and highly recommended. Another highly promising work is David Chesworth’s musical take on the writings of Ulrike Meinhof and Gerhard Richter — although the program leaves unclear whether the work comes in the shape of opera, sound installation, or recital.

Besides a great deal of classical music, pop-classical and a big band of big names (including Velvet Underground veteran John Cale) — the usual crowd-pleasers — the festival also brings a grab-bag of aging masters and crowd-pleasing dance, which the more mainstream-inclined audience may have to do with. It will be interesting to see how Akran Khan’s new work, premiering in Melbourne (a feat for MIAF and Sheehy), is welcomed, and whether CAMPO’s An Anthology of Optimism turns out to be the surprising feel-good hit, such as MIAF has in most years. However, apart from two local shows, a new work by MIAF veterans Ranters, and a play by Daniel Keene, no production strikes me as exemplary of good mainstream theatre (here I apologise to those who consider Keene’s or Ranters’ work to be outrageously fringe: both, in my view, are highly polished examples of mature, polished and deeply un-shock-worthy theatre). Likewise, middle-of-the-road opera is absent, unless Chesworth’s take on (Red Army spokeswoman) Ulrike Meinhof’s writings manages to tickle the suburban imagination. Well, one can only hope.

I have been pleased with Sheehy’s programming so far: for an artistic director with a reputation for safe, commercial fare, he has certainly brought us gems of artistic innovation (such as Sasha Waltz and Guests’ Medea in 2009). I am worried, however, that we may see a revival of media complaints bemoaning the lack of something a casual theatre-goer could enjoy, or well-made plays, or what would you. That theatre experts have a different taste is a matter of course: but casual theatre goers are also citizens of Melbourne, and those $10 million belong to us all.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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