What’s going on in the Indigenous festivals sector?
2012 is proving to be an interesting year for the Indigenous festivals sector. Indeed, it is seemingly tainted by either a combination of unexpected events, or a carefully crafted deconstruction of a viable, necessary creative industry and cultural life force. What is clear however is that questions need to be asked and a greater sense of transparency acquired in order to clarify what appears to be a descent into the dismantling of the sector itself.
To understand this, it’s important to note that Indigenous festivals were a dedicated focus of the Australia Council for the Arts under key strategic initiatives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board (ATSIAB). Through this, ten key festivals were identified as national participants and a substantial financial investment made over four years.
The value of Indigenous Festivals was summarised in two significant studies that had been undertaken:
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board’s Celebrations Strategy, The Next Steps (2010)
Indigenous Festivals: Evaluating Impact on Community Health and Wellbeing: RMIT report to the Telstra Foundation (2007-2010).
These studies clearly substantiated the need for the continued existence and support for Indigenous festivals. This was as per the following reasons:
• the festivals provide a platform for the celebration of particular cultures.
• the festivals are a “key instrument for improving community wellbeing in both the short and long-terms”.
• the festivals are extremely vulnerable, very often owing to remote location, travel costs and the added inability to attract significant commercial sponsorship simply because these festivals cannot compete with urban counterparts.
These key points are important given there are over 300 Indigenous festivals of varying scale nationally and each take on dual roles within Indigenous communities and as a broader mechanism to foster understanding of Indigenous cultures.
In 2010, the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Festivals (CATSIF) was established, comprising the ten key festivals who were central to the reports and a subsequent additional two other events. These were;
New South Wales –
Yabun Festival (Redfern, Sydney)
Northern Territory –
Barunga Festival (Barunga),
Walking with Spirits Festival (Beswick)
The Dreaming Festival (Woodford),
Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival (Laura, Cape York), Mornington Island Festival (Mornington Island),
Winds of Zenadth Cultural Festival (Waiben (Thursday) Island)
South Australia –
Blak Nite Youth Arts Festival (Adelaide)
Melbourne Indigenous Festival (Melbourne)
Western Australia –
KALAAC Law and Culture Festival (Kimberley Region),
Nurlu Arts and Cultural Festival (Broome)
CATSIF represented a diverse national footprint, including the oldest running Indigenous festivals and the largest annual event. Primarily it was the continuance of the build from the great financial investment into the sector by the Australia Council. Indeed, it was initially convened by ATSIAB staff and forums held in Sydney to support this. ATSIAB at this stage had shown commitment and declared it would ‘be the silent partner’ and provide infrastructure such as teleconferencing and meeting capabilities, but would not drive the coalition.
They did this to some degree, however there was an undercurrent present, of agenda and potential meddling by staff to make determinations and push their own favours through. This was no more apparent from when a gathering of a chorum of CATSIF members came together ready to discuss a draft memorandum of understanding. They were what can only be described as ‘ambushed’ at the meeting by another player brought to the table by this staff member, pushing their event into the financial ask and coalition itself.
CATSIF however continued talking, developing a direct to government ask and began gaining momentum toward becoming an independent entity. According to the business case for CATSIF as developed in 2010-2011, it not only acknowledged these two reports, but further articulated the sector was substantially aligned to the general government agenda of its investment and policy efforts.
Specifically it was noted, the contribution that Indigenous festivals make to the wellbeing of the relevant communities spoke beyond the arts spectrum to be directly relevant to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) strategy of Closing the Gap, by contributing directly to five of the seven “building-blocks”, which CATSIF identified in that strategy, namely, education, safe communities, health and wellbeing (particularly mental health), economic participation and leadership.
So what’s going on? With such a significant body of supporting evidence, financial investment over four years by Federal Arts funding, direct alignment to the Government agenda and the establishment of a Coalition of the willing, each with dedicated commitment to work together to realise a greater outcome for the industry, why are Indigenous festivals in a serious state of crisis?
If you were to pick a turning point it would begin with the formation of CATSIF. This was primarily the outcome of the ATSIAB investment and in reality was thrust together post haste at the conclusion of the strategic initiatives, in what appeared to be an oversight on the part of ATSIA itself to cover its lack of mindful planning. You do have to wonder why the Government would invest in specific strategic initiatives, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a sector without a transitional phase or exit strategy. Seems remiss.
The impact of the Australia Council cold cutting the festivals had an immediate effect on event operations. The festivals were placed into risk and other avenues for funding proved to be laced with low sums, a perception that the events could find funds elsewhere, that festivals did not fit the criterion or were not aligned to the event timelines and subsequently unobtainable.
Festivals began to struggle to remain viable at the current scale of operation. The Dreaming: Australia’s International Indigenous Festival was one of the first to announce the festival could not be held over the traditional June long weekend, in part due to the natural disaster of the Queensland Floods, but also in part to the impacts of the withdrawal of the federal support and it being what was termed ‘tethered to the Titanic’, a reference made to the nature of operations of the festival auspice.
In 2011, the Garma festival announced the 2012 Festival will be a reduced event with ticket availability severely limited to cater for a smaller audience. Early in 2012, KALAAC received WA based state support but were impacted by a lack of federal support and the Nurlu festival remained pending start-up investment. Last month there was an announcement that the oldest Indigenous festival in Australia, the Barunga Festival has been cancelled for 2012, which came two months after the Queensland Folk Federation Inc cancelling the Dreaming: Australia’s International Indigenous Festival indefinitely. Equally devastating was a meeting of over 40 Indigenous festivals based in the Northern Territory, coming together with the view to forming a stronger alliance and ecology being primarily stymied before it began. Indigenous alliances and coalitions are clearly a dangerous concept.
You could be forgiven for suspecting that Indigenous Festivals are being picked off one by one, it certainly looks like it. But there is a twist. One individual, the same individual who was pushed onto the CATSIF meeting has been associated with three emergent events, each attracting substantial capital, one of which $841,000 from the Northern Territory based Aboriginal Benefits Fund, despite not being based there. It has also been suggested this individual was involved in the deconstruction of the Dreaming: Australia’s International Indigenous Festival, proactively spreading toxicity across two events in Adelaide prior to the incumbent Director being made aware of the status of the event and related tenure.
So while the spread of a diverse footprint of critical events have tumbled, one person has their government endorsed finger in many pies, stitching up the sector in one foul swoop.
Surely this should command a deeper investigation?