Save Big West campaign fails

Organisers are determined to harness the community’s energy into a constructive future outcome.

Image via

Organisers of the community-based Save Big West Group yesterday announced via Facebook that the fight to save Big West Festival ‘has failed’. They also thanked the community for ​their passionate support of the festival.

‘You have reinvigorated debate about community ownership of local organisations. The organisers of Save Big West thank you for your support, your contributions and your energy, and believe that this energy is one of the great things to come out of this. We hope it can be channelled into something constructive in the future.’

Earlier this month the Board of Big West Festival – a community-based festival established in 1997 and intended to address issues of geographic, cultural and social isolation for the residents of Melbourne’s western suburbs – abruptly announced the festival would ‘retire’ by the year’s end.

Read: Controversy as Big West Festival announces closure

Public outcry was significant, with concerns raised about the Board’s failure to consult artists, arts organisations, community groups and other stakeholders before making their decision.

The Board’s silence was compounded by their failure to attend a community forum established by the Save Big West Group the following week, at which a vote of confidence in the Save Big West Group was carried without dissention.

Read: Big West board refuses to answer community questions

More recently, members of the Save Big West Group met with the festival Chair, Kirsty Ellem, and Board member Kristie Walker to propose a postponement of the process of winding up the organisation so that ways to save the festival could be explored. Two days later that proposal was rejected.

In their latest statement, Save Big West Group described the Board’s response as ‘cultural vandalism’.

‘Decisions about the festival have been taken without recourse to proper transparent process and consultation, and without regard to the commonly accepted notion of arts Board member roles as custodians, as distinct from “owners” of public events like Big West Festival,’ the statement read.

‘Some reasons cited by the Board to justify the festival’s closure have dissolved through productive conversations recently held with Maribyrnong Council and other stakeholders. Indeed, spokespersons for these organisations have lamented that no attempt was made by the Board to negotiate new conditions they might have found more amenable.

‘This demonstrates an unacceptable lack of process. We acknowledge there are valid concerns around the sustainability and viability of many arts organisations at this time; as such Big West is not alone. The Board’s unexplained refusal to enter into such negotiations, nor make amends for it in the face of community protest, is utterly mystifying.’

Read: Big West Board responds to criticism

The Save Big West Group also criticised the Board’s ​hope that a new festival might spring from Big West’s ashes.

‘In the process of our aforementioned meeting, the Board expressed a desire to see a new organisation grow, phoenix-like, from the ground up. We further ask: What could have led the Board to conclude this notion was ever feasible? The logic of winding up an organisation that is fully funded and viable, that has charitable status, that secured the confidence of philanthropic organisations, private investors and local, state and federal governments, that has 20 years of community relationships and good will behind it, that is artistically vibrant and relevant to diverse communities – in order to start another organisation with essentially the same mission, is more than bizarre,’ ​Save Big West Group said.

When approached by ArtsHub to respond to the Save Big West Group’s latest statement, the Board responded by reiterating the points made in their media statement of 18 July, ​noting that as of 30 June 2016 the organisation has reserves of $49,568.

‘The Board has not yet met to progress the disposal of the organisation’s assets. At this stage this is no further information,’ a Board spokesperson added.

In addition to winding up the festival, the Board apparently intends that Big West’s Mobile Art Spaces’ project, which has triennial federal and philanthropic funding until mid-2018, will be wound up this year and the grants returned, ‘despite the vehement protests of the outer-western communities whom this program serves’, said the Save Big West Group.

‘Instead of investing Big West’s reserve of [almost] $50,000 to securing the next stages of this program, the Board has decided to “give away” this asset to an entity of its discretion. In the absence of any loyalty or adherence to its own mission to support communities in the west, this decision appears in equal parts untenable and wantonly destructive.’

The statement concluded: ‘We are in discussions for a post-Save Big West public meeting. Watch this space!’

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts