Suzy Freeman-Greene June 23, 2012
One of many: Melbourne Fashion Festival draws the crowds. Photo: Mal Fairclough
HERE'S a sacrilegious thought. What if we had a few less festivals in this glorious, belt-tightening city and put the money saved into TAFE courses that foster future artists?
Festivals are, of course, fabulous things. I still savour the memory of hearing Patti Smith roar at the Melbourne Festival four years ago. What's not to like about amazing performers, fresh movies and urbane exchange of ideas? Or food trucks, art installations and pop-up cafes/galleries/whatever else is hot this week? But two recent festival announcements prompted less than festive feelings.
First came word of this month's Indian Film Festival, which netted a $450,000, three-year, state government contract. This newspaper later reported that the company staging the festival was presenting a similar event interstate (without government funding) and recycling some previously released films.
Then came the Baillieu government's breathless announcement that it would fulfil an election pledge to present the all-night White Night Melbourne, inspired by Paris' famous Nuit Blanche.
Nuit Blanche may well totally rock. But there was a touch of ''bread and circuses'' to this announcement, which came soon after devastating budget cuts to TAFEs. Just weeks earlier, Ballarat University had said its TAFE courses in visual arts, performance, ceramics and music would likely be axed due to the cuts.
White Night, said Baillieu's press release, ''will showcase all that we love about our great city - arts and culture, food and wine, fashion and sport''. It will be held on February 23. But in March, we'll have the hefty Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and the Melbourne Fashion Festival. We're chock-a-block with arts festivals and the city often feels like one year-long sporting carnival.
When I asked Baillieu's spokeswoman what White Night would cost us, she said that as with all events managed by the Victorian Major Events Company, the funding was commercial-in-confidence. ''It will, however, be funded and delivered within the Victorian government's existing major event budget.''
The problem with this budget is that the public gets a distinctly minor say in how it is spent. This week it emerged that we'd turned our back on the chance to host the 2014 World Parks Congress, run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The bid, said Major Events Minister Louise Asher, ''did not represent good value for taxpayers' money''. But New South Wales, which got the conference, said it would generate $25 million for its economy.
This decision offered an intriguing window into the political nature of events funding. A parks congress is, bizarrely, not good value. But we'll plunge more than $50 million into the Australian Grand Prix. And while regional arts courses wither, we'll throw money at Bollywood films to get good PR in India.
Arts festivals have hugely enlivened this state, bringing international acts, new local work and tourists. When a big festival is on, there's a palpable frisson of excitement in town. I wouldn't dream of suggesting we cut existing much-loved festivals, but are there more urgent priorities than these new ones? Baillieu in his White Night press release spoke of ''our reputation for artistic innovation and vibrant culture''. Well, such things are nurtured by good teachers.
Most of us are familiar, too, with the concept of Stendhal syndrome - that feeling of breathless confusion when exposed to an overload of art in one place. Might too many festivals (or at least too much marketing hype) produce a similar fatigue?
This week a market researcher pounced on me in Federation Square. She was surveying attitudes to this month's Light in Winter festival. It was daylight and the square's installations - designed to be lit at night - did not look their best. Still, the questions went on. Did I think the festival attracted tourists? Did it benefit Melbourne?
As I dutifully answered, I could already visualise my responses packaged into a slab of market research accompanying a future funding application. It did seem to detract from the event's mysterious beauty.
Around Victoria, TAFE arts, craft and design courses are starting to fall like tenpins. At Gippsland's Advance TAFE, furniture design and visual arts will go. At Ballarat, only graphic design is likely to survive. These courses can offer alternative paths to university and training in vital skills. They can also change lives, bringing purpose to struggling communities, as Valerie Sheather, a Ballarat TAFE arts administrator, recently testified in a letter to The Courier.
''Mature-age students have described how these programs have saved their lives - literally,'' Sheather wrote. ''One farmer's wife whispered to me that if it hadn't been for the visual arts units she studied part-time in Horsham, she would surely be dead.''
Of course the arts need all the help they can get. Many local artists earn a pittance. And the public money going to the Indian Film and White Night festivals may be a comparatively small amount. But given a choice between funding these events (not to mention the grand prix) and paying for TAFE art teachers, I know where I'd like my money to go.
Suzy Freeman-Greene is a senior writer.