The cultural life of an economic backwater
Russell Degnan

In the years before the 14th century, long distance trade between northern Europe - and in particular Flanders - and the more developed economies of Italy barely existed. For two centuries, this marketplace in Troyes and others like it there, and throughout Champagne was a keystone in the developing economy. Each June and October merchants from all over Europe would converge, to trade their wares, allowing them to take home a diversity of goods that would be unthinkable and highly risky if they'd needed to go to the source.

War and direct exchange killed off the Champagne fairs, and the buildings of Troyes are the sign of an economy that peaked - relative to others - even before the Renaissance. Yet the idea lives on, in the dozens of festivals in Melbourne and elsewhere.

They exist because the economics of many things doesn't lend themselves to being available all the time. New York and London can have thriving comic scenes, but Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Montreal have comedy festivals. Hollywood can release a film worldwide and expect patrons to come, but independent and short films go on tour. Places like Sundance, Cannes, or Annecy are the biggest, but Melbourne has its turn with the International Film Festival, the Animation Festival, the French Film Festival, TropFest, the Underground Film Festival and the Queer Film Festival, to name but a few!

When the sponsoring council makes their opening speech, they invariably justify all these events on economic grounds. They cite all the visitors, the benefits to the local economy, and the tourist industry. But even where it is beneficial it is largely unquantifiable crap, and probably little more than a subsidy to those industries. The benefit of festivals is that they concentrate otherwise diverse economic agents; be it a little known international comic, an avant garde, a niche garden supplier in country Victoria, or dozens of others who can't afford to market themselves without the broad umbrella of a festival to attract the punter.

For attendees, the government grant is a subsidy for their benefit, even if that benefit is good quality entertainment. Even if you don't attend, the city will have that special buzz for the two weeks or a month that the festival runs. Of course, some non-attendees will complain about the gross impact of the festivals they don't like, but really, to complain about the Summer Fun in the Parks concerts is the sign of a kill-joy. Some festivals can be an inconvenience to the city resident - and I've been one - but the benefits are many, and if you don't like them might I suggest you're living in the wrong place?

The reality is Melbourne is a geographically distant place, with a large but not enormous population. Without these festivals Melbourne, and so many other Australian towns and cities, would be culturally monotonous and pathetic. We shouldn't necessarily be proud of our festivals - they are unnecessary in a lot of places - but we need them.

Passing Fancy 3rd April, 2005 21:25:35   [#] 


A lot of places?
Besides New York and London, do you really think that there's that many places in the English-speaking world which can get away without the odd festival to enliven them?
Rob  4th April, 2005 13:07:26  

Fair point
The short answer is no. More accurately, it depends on the event and the location. Even New York and London need festivals - the tennis for example, is not a week to week proposition. Some things just wouldn't exist without festivals to support them; conversely, some places would barely have any cultural activity without festivals.

Melbourne, I think, tends towards the latter, because of its geography and relatively sparse population. And as such, many of Melbourne's festivals wouldn't be necessary elsewhere. I might add, the corollary to all that is that some places can't support festivals either because of their proximity to a constant source.

Russ  4th April, 2005 14:46:17  

I love festivals
I am a festival junkie. I love getting excited about something that is on for a short time. It forces me to go to it. I love the comedy festival and because it is only on for a short time, I end up going. I haven't been to the Comedy Club for ages, even though I love comedy. I gues festivals get in the way (German film festival is next).

The alternative to festivals is subscriptions. For example my MTC subscription forces me to go to the theatre. If it was left up to me each month, I tend to let other things get in the way and end up not going.
BridgeGirl  7th April, 2005 15:37:23