In some ways, next year’s New Mardi Gras arts, sports and cultural festival will focus on innovation, its diverse line-up showcasing emerging performers alongside more established stars.
But in one important sense, the festival will be more concerned with preserving the status quo than delivering a radical departure.
As in the preceding three years, the 2006 festival will use an umbrella structure under which New Mardi Gras will not financially back individual events.
The organisation’s failed predecessor preferred a costlier curated model that became a financial liability. The current festival structure has delivered reliable, if modest returns.
New Mardi Gras board member Diane Minnis told Sydney Star Observer the arts season had not lost money in the previous two years. But Minnis, the festival’s board sponsor, would not say how much the event cost to put together.
Before this year’s New Mardi Gras board elections, former co-chair Steph Sands said the festival cost under $10,000 to produce -“ far less than major dance parties, the organisation’s traditional and increasingly fragile revenue route.
The month-long festival also generated substantial income from sales of advertising space in its annual program guide, Sands said.
Perhaps the arts season is the New Mardi Gras event least in need of drastic change. Yet at the same time, its safer financial model dampens income possibilities.
As former Sydney Film Festival director Gayle Lake puts it, [New Mardi Gras’] strategic decision to become an umbrella festival rather than a producer of different events within the festival is less risky, but of course that does cut your potential income.
A high-risk fiscal arrangement is probably not a realistic option for an organisation smarting from substantial financial losses.
Could New Mardi Gras extract more meaningful financial returns from its annual festival while leaving the umbrella financial model intact?
It is possible, if the experience of Adelaide queer cultural festival Feast is any guide.
Feast’s founders saw the importance of diversity when they established the festival nine years ago in a relatively small city where major dance parties were not a dependable income source.
The founders of the festival immediately recognised that the way to fund a festival here in Adelaide was to go for this diverse big, broad-based range of funding, Feast artistic director Fanny Jacobson told the Star.
Feast receives some funding from government department Arts SA and Adelaide City Council, but also secures support from donors not usually associated with the arts.
We go for health funding, we go for health promotion through the arts funding, we go for HIV/ AIDS funding, we go for project-specific funding, Jacobson said.
Jacobson writes 30 or more grant applications each year.
I might see a grant advertised by the Department [for Families and Communities] for positive ageing, and I will go, -˜Okay, I’m going to do something about positive ageing in the queer community.’
And we work those relationships. We treat our sponsors well. We nurture them and court them and we go from getting $1,000 to getting more.
We put the festival together in a very piecemeal way, which is kind of like a grassroots activist way of running an event. It means that we’re not dependent on one source of funding.
Similarities between Feast and New Mardi Gras suggest the South Australian festival’s experience could be used to effect in Sydney.
Feast’s 120-strong line-up is only slightly larger than New Mardi Gras’ festival of about 100 events, and most of Feast’s events are registered.
Moreover, the two organisations share a trait that is a drawcard for would-be sponsors, according to Jacobson.
We have always got that extra hook that it’s different to everything because it’s queer, and sometimes they go for it, and sometimes they won’t, she said.
However, surmounting logistical obstacles is only a partial solution when some in the arts community have identified lower event quality as a failing of New Mardi Gras’ umbrella arts event.
Trevor Ashley created and starred in the 2003 festival hit Pop Princess and a considerably less successful follow-up in this year’s season.
Ashley, who also performed in the old Mardi Gras arts event, said the breadth of the New Mardi Gras festival was problematic.
You can’t really tell what the quality of a show will be [in the current -˜umbrella’ model]. It’s a very difficult way to do it, as far as I’m concerned, Ashley told the Star.
The Festival’s 100 or so events range from sporting and social dates to visual arts and theatre, including low-profile community performers alongside the bigger names.
Events must support New Mardi Gras’ objectives and most need to pay a registration fee, but the festival is generally open access.
Ashley argued the broad inclusion policy complicated publicity efforts for individual events and made the festival unfocused.
The publicity is spread so thin over so many events. That’s where I see problems for a festival of this size, and especially when everybody only has a particular amount of money, he said.
Ashley called for a narrower season featuring 25 or 30 higher-profile arts events. A separate fringe event could accommodate more community-based performers.
I think it would make particular events a lot more successful, he said.
Gayle Lake agreed that a smaller festival would probably enhance audience satisfaction -“ the ultimate goal of any arts event.
Sometimes the old adage of less is more is correct, she said.
And to actually focus your audience on a lesser number of events and endeavour to look at making it a higher quality, because in the end they will come back if they think it is enlightening or entertaining.
They are there to participate in something that they deem [to be] quality.
A paid curator who vetted potential festival events is one possible answer, according to Ashley.
You may agree or disagree with particular people’s choice of artists and things that were included in previous Mardi Gras festivals, he said.
However, in a way by doing that there is a quality control.
Produced mainly by volunteers, the New Mardi Gras festival employs a coordinator for up to five months each year. But the role does not extend to curating events.
Mardi Gras’ financial situation may make the recruitment of another staff member unviable. Here again, Feast’s experience is instructive.
Earlier this year, the Adelaide organisation appointed a management consultant under a part in-kind, part-payment arrangement, in a bid to improve business processes.
We went through the whole organisation, treating it as a project that needed fixing, Fanny Jacobson said.
By the time we got into pre-pre-production -¦ we knew exactly what was going to happen for the rest of the year. Again it’s one of those instances of when you’ve got your structure right, the vision can fly, Jacobson said.