Books, News & Commentary

Literary festivals: Is this town big enough for both of us?

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When Creative Victoria and Tourism Victoria say they are going to “showcase” a city or region, be afraid. Here comes another imposition, another idea backed by government funding that, like a bulldozer in a grassland, ploughs through the delicate ecology of the existing landscape.

When it was announced that the huge outdoor lights how that is White Night Melbourne was combining with the Melbourne International Arts Festival to become one gigantic winter festival, Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley’s statement read like this: “This bold new winter festival will build on Melbourne’s standing as a global cultural capital, showcasing our local artists and bringing our cultural arts institutions to life.”

That may have raised a few eyebrows at those aforesaid cultural arts institutions, who would probably think they are already showing many signs of life. No doubt the use of galleries, libraries and other buildings works very well in a festival context, but this obsession with shining lights onto buildings is both very expensive and sort of rigidly imposed. Disco fever writ large. 

Why has the big-budget, big-crowd spectacle become such a focus for governments?

And as for the showcasing of locals, frankly, that’s double-speak. Here’s what the Minister’s release-writer might be seen to be actually saying: “The government will fund some artists chosen to participate in a number of very big events, plus a few more artists who apply for a range of smaller events and whose projects tick the right boxes.”

I confess I’ve written release statements similar to the Minister’s in relation to our “bold winter festival” in Bendigo, that “builds on Bendigo’s standing” as a cultural “hub”, because it’s what’s expected. Shame on me, yes, but as Beckett used to say, life is more pricks than kicks, and sometimes you just have to compromise.

Arts funding is probably no more prone to governmental engineering than, say, environmental or medical funding, but there’s a vexing overlay of hypocrisy in the way “artist” is used by these agencies whose rhetoric says one thing but whose practice appears to prove they pretty much think art that doesn’t make money is crap anyway and that “creativity” and “industry” are like horse and carriage.

What we hadn’t seen coming was the knock-on from Minister Foley’s announcement. A few weeks before Bendigo Writers Festival, which ran across the August 9-11 long weekend, a very apologetic email arrived out of Melbourne (not from Creative Victoria) informing us that next year, Melbourne Writers Festival will also move as a consequence of the White Night decision. And, sorry, but it was moving slap bang on to the weekend on which Bendigo Writers Festival has been held for the past eight years.

To go up against such a big festival, that is well-funded by both the Australia Council and Creative Victoria and which is understandably very desirable for both Australian and international authors on the touring circuit… well, that would be challenging, to say the least. After eight years watching this festival grow, prosper, find its place on the cultural calendar and provide local and visiting audiences with a busy program brimful of interest, this came as a slap. And it stung.

Was that it? End of a short, sharp, shiny era? We could have soldiered on, downsizing to a more modest event (we do rather play out of our league, it’s true, stacking the team with superstars and tackling topics that have caused a few pursed lips among those who believe controversy is naughty). Or… we could, in the wonderful words of some slogan guru or other, see this not as a problem but as an opportunity.

It has been difficult to convince Melbourne that there really is no threat from a city the size of Bendigo to the audiences who might attend literary events in August.

August in Bendigo is bracing. Mostly, that’s ok, and Min Jin Lee (pictured), one of our guests this year, laughed at our apologies for the biting wind and pelting hail. She’s lived in Boston, and you get snow up to here, she said, pointing to her knee. What was different this year was that air travel was affected, and several writers had to wait for many hours at Sydney airport, arriving in the nick of time for sessions (and in one case, running up the steps of the Capital and on to stage 15 minutes into the session). There was also the added inconvenience of the train – track work, apparently needed to be scheduled that weekend, so anyone coming from Melbourne on the Saturday or Sunday had to go halfway by bus, then transfer to a train. An hour’s wait in that weather was unpleasant.

These things happen, and we are fortunate in Bendigo to be able to use solid venues. Byron Writers Festival a couple of years back had a mini-tornado rip through and knock down the tents on the day before the festival. An extraordinary effort from all concerned got those tents back up and the festival went ahead as planned. Bravo them.

Mostly, August in Bendigo is cold but manageable, and when we started out, Bendigo Tourism was keen to have the Writers Festival populate that otherwise quiet month. Seems we were ahead of the game. Now, apparently, Melbourne sees August as a brilliant month for tourism and that has prompted this big restructure of the Arts Festival and its new partner, White Night. 

Never mind the knock-on effect of this. Not only does it mean all kinds of festivals and events in Melbourne itself have to adjust; it’s impacting festivals across the country. It’s sort of like there was this river that has been flowing ok for a long time and then there’s a decision made by government to allow water to be diverted out for one chosen user at the expense of lots of others downstream. And the government response is, tough luck, that’s business.

The good news for Bendigo is that the Writers Festival is moving to May, which is a kinder month weather-wise, but also a good month to develop further relationships with other national festivals and with publishers touring authors. It has been difficult to convince Melbourne that there really is no threat from a city the size of Bendigo to the audiences who might attend literary events in August. You can put “exclusivity” clauses into agreements with authors, preventing them from doing other events, and this, unfortunately, has often been the case with Melbourne’s attitude to Bendigo Writers Festival. So a shift to May may obviate that entrenched attitude. 

The shift also provides an opportunity for a transition year. Financially, the City of Greater Bendigo supports the festival through Capital Venues and Events, which any festival organiser will tell you is a huge deal. The biggest cost for such an intensive event is venue and staff hire, both of which, in the case of Bendigo, are underwritten by the Capital. It’s an enlightened initiative by a can-do Council that has made this possible. But two full Festivals in one financial year would be stretching that resource, so May 2020 will be “boutique” size (that is smaller and more modest), with the goal for May 2021 to be back full-strength.

I’d like to ask Creative Industries Minister Foley if he thinks it’s ok that his big new bold festival has run rough-shod over all kinds of people’s hard work and dedication.

All of this is detail, the nitty-gritty about jockeying for position in a crowded field. And none of it matters too much, although the responses to Bendigo Writers Festival have been so warm and positive, so genuinely rich in their expression of the importance of such events, it’s a strong antidote to cynicism, apathy and despair. We do need these cultural events, so the idea that the Festival would just shut shop was never really under consideration. And as in any landscape, change is inevitable, so this next phase for the Festival is also (now the initial dismay has passed) exciting. 

That doesn’t mean I’m quite ready to thank Minister Foley and his Creative Victoria team of culture-overseers for providing us with the prod we needed to embrace change. Indeed, here’s a couple of queries for them all.

Why has the big-budget big-crowd spectacle become such a focus for governments? Is it simply an investment in the commercial outcome (ie spend millions in order for millions to flow back into the economy?) Is there, embedded in this equation, an ideological foundation that distrusts the uncertainty of the liberal arts?

And while there’s ever-expanding public interest in events such as Bendigo Writers Festival and so many other festivals created by people whose commitment is heart-warming, does a government agency such as Creative Victoria support unequivocally the kind of creativity that such festivals embody? Seems not.

I’d like to ask Minister Foley if he thinks it’s ok that his big new bold festival has run rough-shod over all kinds of people’s hard work and dedication. If he thinks culture is hand-maiden to tourism. If he reckons profit is the primary goal of creative industry. And whether he’d like to book a seat at our new May Bendigo Writers Festival. He, and anyone from Creative Victoria who would care to come (if the trains are running, we’d recommend coming by rail), will be very welcome. 


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