“We’ve been given the opportunity to really rethink it from the ground up. We’re not approaching it as a fusing of the Melbourne International Arts Festival and White Night, but really trying to think about it as an entirely new festival.”
Both Fox and Obarzanek have been fixtures on the Australian arts festival circuit for some time.
Beginning his career as a dancer, Obarzanek moved into choreography, founding Chunky Move in 1995. The multiple Helpmann Award-winner is chair of Melbourne Fringe Festival and a former artistic associate of MIAF, with works presented in the last two festivals.
Fox’s background is in innovative, large-scale live art, sound and music. Her work with outfit Supple Fox has included painting (real) sheep in bright colours for Britain’s Latitude Festival, bringing parkour runners into the Tate Modern and staging a gothic choral work alongside the “Ferris Wheel of Death” at Dark Mofo.
“One of my biggest takeaways from working on Dark Mofo has been understanding – and not underestimating – the audience,” she says.
“That’s been really amazing to watch on that scale of proof – that audiences of all sorts are really much more curious than they’re often given credit for.
“[But] Hobart’s a small town, it’s easy to completely saturate it with a festival. This is very different: Melbourne has something on every night of the week [so] we need to strike a real point of difference.”
They have their work cut out for them. The Victorian government is promising the still-to-be-named festival will be of a scale never before seen, combining the budgets of the two merging festivals. It will run for 18 days next year from August 20 to September 6, with a mix of free and ticketed events.
The pair is initially focusing on public, ceremonial-style events – “really signature events that we hope to roll out for a long time”, says Fox – with their curation guided by notions of the “ancient” (public ritual, transcendence) and the “contemporary” (expressions of counterculture).
Obarzanek says they will have equal responsibility for all decisions and are taking a collaborative approach. “There’ll be generally more people making curatorial decisions under our new model; we’ll be bringing in other people from around Australia and overseas,” he says.
The new festival is set to be declared a “major event” – meaning that, like White Night, its net cost is likely to be concealed from the public under “commercial-in-confidence”.
Since it first landed in 2013, the Victorian government has refused to reveal the cost of White Night to taxpayers.
However, as a registered not-for-profit, MIAF’s financials are readily available. Last year the festival cost $11.8 million to put on, with more than half that ($6.3 million) funded by government, primarily through Creative Victoria. MIAF turned a $533,000 profit last year.
While the state government has said the new winter arts festival will be led by a “strengthened (and renamed) MIAF organisation”, it is not clear whether the new body will retain its non-profit status and level of transparency.
Melbourne’s final standalone White Night will take place August 22-24, and the final MIAF on October 2-20, before they are replaced with the new winter arts festival next year.
Hannah Francis is Arts Editor at The Age