The Fashioning of a Melbourne Event: The Melbourne International Arts Festival 2002-2009

Article excerpt

When seasoned festival director Brett Sheehy took the helm of the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) in 2009, he faced an open-minded public and a sympathetic press but a local arts community that a stand-up comic might regard as a 'tough room'. After seven years of festivals led by his predecessors Kristy Edmunds (2005-08) and Robyn Archer (2002-04) that had come to increasingly reflect the aesthetics and practices of Melbourne's independent artists and smaller companies, Sheehy's decisions would be carefully scrutinised by the city's vibrant community of theatre makers. Unlike Sheehy, who built a career as an arts administrator and festival director at Adelaide (2005-08) and Sydney (200205), Edmunds and Archer both moved into festival management after careers as artists. Archer had been a professional singer before taking the reins in 2002,' while Edmunds moved from a visual and inter-arts background into curating one of the most artist-centred festivals in the USA, the Time-Based Art Festival in Portland, Oregon. As MIAF's longest serving director and only the second non-Australian to run the event," Edmunds quickly became respected and even adored by some segments of Melbourne's arts community. On the final night of the 2008 festival, revellers at the Artist Lounge celebrated her contributions and lauded her for having successfully curated a series of increasingly intimate, artist-centred festivals.

Even before the 2009 festival opened, there were already some in the creative arts community who were making noise about the relative paucity of local offerings, prompting Sheehy to remark, ? know artists want their work seen, I also know that in this city there are multiple forums in which their work can be seen ... If their work is great, the odds are it's going to happen anyway'.3 At the outset of the festival, Sheehy made it clear that under his watch the festival was not for '"us" or "them"; it is for each and every citizen of this city',4 a statement the editors at the Melbourne Age heralded as 'a triumph of plain language over artspeak' which, they noted 'sadly', was 'an affliction of at least one of his predecessors', a clear reference to Edmunds who at times had a less than happy relationship with the mainstream daily press. When the 2009 festival ended with the highest box-office take on record, it was clear that the first Sheehy festival may well mark the end of festivals that often felt as though they were created largely for those who saw self-identity as being on the cutting edge of Melbourne's performing arts community.

Because of the relative coherence of the festivals from Archer's first in 2002 and the clear changes that are afoot from 2009, this article focuses on the eight-year period from 2002 to 2009, identifying trends and shifts in programming in the flexible though largely consistent categories of theatre, dance, dance theatre, physical theatre, site-specific/live art, opera and music theatre. It is beyond the scope of this article to map a comprehensive history of the event - one that has seen a long line of distinguished artistic directors, including not just Archer, Edmunds and Sheehy, but also Gian Carlo Menotti, John Truscott, Richard Wherrett, Leo Schofield, Clifford Hocking, Sue Nattrass and Jonathan Mills.5 I argue that while seven years of Archer and Edmunds resulted in a festival that was distinctively Melburnian in terms of its scope, scale and taste, Sheehy's concern with broadening the audience base for the festival suggests that he may be less preoccupied with the event's reflecting a particular Melbourne artist-centred sensibility than were his predecessors. This may not necessarily be a bad thing. Lest I be accused of being a Melbourne cheerleader, I conclude with some observations about what the festival has never done particularly well, while setting out some hopes for the future.

Festival and the Melbourne context

While the Adelaide Festival dates back to 1960, the Melbourne International Arts Festival is relatively young, having adopted the name Melbourne International Festival of the Arts in 1990 after dropping its original designation as the Melbourne Spoleto Festival. …