The past 18 months have undeniably been the toughest for Victoria’s event and creative industries. Now, like many other arts and community organisations Midsumma Festival is facing an uphill battle as they continue to forge ahead in these uncertain times.
Midsumma’s financial situation is daunting. CEO Karen Bryant recently told the Star Observer “We’ve now lost around another half a million dollars in revenue, which is about a third of our total revenue. But we went all out to try and raise money where we could, but we sent it straight out.”
“For example, there was one $99,000 grant that I got, we didn’t keep any of it, we sent it straight out to artists and arts collectives from our communities to enable them to do events that we knew were at risk because they didn’t have enough money,” Bryant stated.
“We did put real dollars into artists and venues to try and make things happen at a time when we were trying to keep our own doors open. “
Even before the COVID pandemic and the Melbourne lockdowns of 2020, Midsumma was struggling to make ends meet. The recent half million dollar in losses come on top of a significant shortfall from the previous festival. In an earlier interview with Star Observer Bryant revealed that Midsumma had lost out on over $760,000 in revenue even before COVID hit.
Slower Than Normal Ticket Sales
The postponement of Midsumma Festival from January to late April and into May this year, while viewed as ‘necessary’ meant that Midsumma was wedged between three other major festivals all with major government funding and all with strong queer representation of their own. This year, it was Midsumma but without any of the regular buzz of which the festival has for decades provided.
“It’s not ideal, we wouldn’t have chosen to be in Autumn, but the reality is, if we went for the original dates, we would have only been digital,” Bryant says of the delay, “But overwhelmingly people have come up to me daily since we launched, saying they are just so pleased we pushed the dates back.”
On being wedged between Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Yirramboi Festival and Melbourne Festival’s new incarnation Rising, Bryant adds that “It was the only gap in the calendar before the end of the financial year, and we needed to get it done this year.”
It’s not just the festival as a whole which has suffered this year, as a number of event producers that Star Observer have spoken with over the first week of the festival having all stated having ‘slower than normal’ ticket sales. While this could be down to a slow post-Covid recovery, some of these event producers, also stated they had no trouble selling tickets in recent festivals held in both Adelaide and Perth- cities with populations far smaller than Melbourne’s.
No Midsumma Carnival
Another notable exclusion from this year’s program was the lack of community organisations and venues partnering or partaking in presenting work this year. Bryant tells us that, “There are a range of different perspective involved with this, but the first thing is that 88 percent of our program is open access, and those venues have to register and be part of it, because of COVID we knew that would be difficult.”
The other, most notable change to the festival program this year was the absence of Midsumma Carnival due to current COVID guidelines- which is acknowledged as being one of the key ways community organisations and groups engage with Melbourne LGBTQI communities.
Bryant also added that the festival spent seven months in negotiations with venues and organisations last year trying to work out a plan moving forward, with Midsumma even going so far as to reduce registration fees by 50 percent, yet notable LGBTQI venues had chosen not to present any events under the Midsumma Festival banner this year.
“We did everything we could, making it so that people could register online- even after the launch, but we can’t determine who decides to come and be a part of the program or not. Last year we couldn’t engage with people on a one-to-one basis because we were all in lock down.”
“All the projects we invest in are with queer groups, but the reality is that the largest number of people we engage with each year is through Midsumma Carnival… But we still have 235 registered groups for pride march, and the majority of them are LGBTQI.
Surviving Financial Crunch
What can’t be ignored is that the biggest risk to the future of Midsumma Festival is in relation to its ongoing financial state. In 2002, when Mardi Gras posted a loss of only A$400,000, it was enough for the organising company to declare bankruptcy only a few months later.
So as Midsumma reached the end of its 32nd festival, only time will tell how it fared this year, and what actions it might be forced to take to survive into 2022.
Concluding our interview, Bryant reflects on this, saying “We really do try to do everything we can, and we understand there will always be different perspectives, but we have been struggling to survive this year, and I didn’t think we would get through it for a bit there, sadly next year is going to be just as tough.”