Darwin Festival to go ahead despite political ruckus

Despite recent dramas, including the dismissal of the Board and the appointment of a statutory manager, the 2016 Festival will proceed as scheduled.
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Audience members give a standing ovation to the 2015 Darwin Festival event Prison Songs. Image via Facebook. 

Political rivalry may have underpinned the recent turmoil in the Northern Territory, which resulted in the ​dismissal of the Board of the Darwin Festival Association Incorporated on Wednesday and imperiled the presentation of the 2016 Festival.

Read: Darwin Festival placed under administration

The current Northern Territory Government led by the Country Liberal Party’s Chief Minister Adam Giles had become highly critical in recent days of the Festival Board, which was chaired by former Labor Chief Minister Clare Martin, over the decision to increase staff numbers from four to ten despite posting a $342,906 deficit last year.

It is standard practice in the sector to employ additional staff in the lead up to any arts festival to cover the demands of production and event management.

NT Minister for Arts and Museums Gary Higgins MLA also criticised the Festival for programming musicians from interstate, in particular former Midnight Oil frontman and ex-Labor MP Peter Garrett, instead of local artists.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the now-sacked Board rationalised the 2015 deficit as the result of ‘rising delivery costs, the reduction in Government funding and a shortfall in ticket sales due to the flattening economic climate’.

As noted by Crikey this week, the NT Government’s complaints regarding the Board’s economic management ‘sure seem like throwing stones from a glass house’ given that the Government’s own budget deficit has blown out to $793.8 million.

The Board’s statement from Tuesday expressed fears the Festival would have to be cancelled ​if additional funds from Government were not forthcoming. Significantly, the request for funds was pitched by then-Chair Clare Martin as a loan. ‘We will trade out of this – it might take us three or four years,’ she told the NT News. Clearly Martin’s request fell on deaf ears, with the Northern Territory’s Director General of Licensing moving to dismiss the Board that same day.

After the sacking of the Board, NT’s Arts Minister confirmed that Government would make available ‘all pre-committed funds to deliver Darwin Festival 2016’.

From an external perspective, recent events appear to have been little more than political sabre-rattling and an engineered crisis which positions the Government as forcing a drama from which they can then emerge as the Festival’s saviour – the end result of which could ultimately see the Festival lose its independence by being subsumed into the Northern Territory Major Events Company, should Government decide against appointing a new Board.

As The Australian noted yesterday: ‘Truthfully [the Festival] was probably never in all that much danger … Who could possibly take the blame for scrapping popular gatherings of Territory revelers in the weeks leading up to the crucial August 27 NT vote?’

Neither Higgins nor the Festival have publicly commented on the situation since Wednesday, however ArtsHub understands that the Festival program will be delivered as intended, despite the appointment of Hendri Mentz, from auditors Deloitte, as statutory manager.

While Mentz has been empowered to make core savings where possible, he has also been instructed to avoid making the Festival ‘boring’ by cutting its program.

Having already met with Mentz in recent days, ArtsHub understands Higgins will next meet with Darwin Festival staff early next week – either Monday or Tuesday – to assure them their work is ‘valued and appreciated’.

An earlier audit of the Festival conducted by Delloitte – which apparently cautioned against appointing an administrator due to the extra expense this would create – has not yet been publicly released by the NT Government.

As the drama has played out the wellbeing of Festival staff has largely been ignored by most parties, observed Sean Pardy, Executive Director of Darwin’s Brown’s Mart Theatre.

‘There’s a whole bunch of really hardworking, dedicated staff that work at the Festival and it must be awful for them – they can’t not listen to the radio or pick up the NT News. So to have their livelihoods, their work paraded in the media in this way must be really difficult for them,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘The staff I know who are working at the Festival are excessively committed, they work extraordinary hours, and they do the best job possible to bring Darwin a fantastic festival.

‘I think that no-one’s really thought of them in this ruckus and I guess I don’t know if it was entirely necessary for it all to be played out publically. If there’s things that need to be discussed why could they not have been discussed between the disagreeing parties?’

Had the Festival been cancelled it would have been disastrous for the Northern Territory’s arts community, who depend on its program to bring significant works to Darwin, Pardy added.

‘For an artist who lives and works in Darwin to go and see a work [interstate] … requires nine hours of flying in an aeroplane and overnight accommodation. So that opportunity to see what’s on the national and international stages is vital for local artists’ development,’ he said, adding that the Festival also provides a vital platform for NT artists by attracting touring and programming support from interstate producers.

The 2016 Darwin Festival program will be launched on 23 June, with the Festival itself running from 4-21 August.

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