Why I Boycotted This Year's Sydney Festival

Every January it’s the same. After the salt-water riddled, endless-leg-of-ham-induced food coma of the Christmas break – the Sydney Festival always appears out of nowhere. So, after many years of being disorganised, and for only having myself to blame for missing out on the good stuff, I made sure that this year I was more prepared.

With my Festival guide under arm and a pen in the pocket, I headed down to the cafe to sip on a rich morning gift from my local barista lady. Then, settling in after a little people-watching procrastination, my caffeinated brain cells embraced the challenge and I began to flick through the guide and absorb the abundance of wonderful things to go and see.

But I soon found myself distracted. Rather than becoming inspired by the Festival guide, I found myself bemused as the seductive marketing for the Star Casino, peppered throughout the guide, forced my face to screw up.

Young, good-looking models smiled at me from their full page advertisements, beckoning me to visit the casino for a “decadent dinner”, or a late-night espresso Martini. The copywriting that complemented this projected utopia read like some sick form of poetry. To “roll the dice” the advertisements proclaimed, was the “sweetest of moments”.

Things got even worse. Flicking to the back of the guide, to the page presenting the festival sponsors, I heard myself swear rather audibly as I looked at it. There, at the top of the page — placed above even the City of Sydney in the visual hierarchy — beamed the big golden logo of the Star Casino.

I sat in the cafe in shock. Had they selected a casino to be the main corporate sponsor of Sydney’s largest cultural event? They had, it seemed. They certainly bloody had.

Taking stock, knocking back my third flat white and listening to the clicks of the coffee machine – I considered it all some more. Really, I mean really — should I have even been surprised?

After all, the pattern was set quite early on by our current State Government and by our current Minister for the Arts (who is also, incidentally – the Minister for Gambling). A definite pattern of prioritising big business over community interests. A pattern of neglecting our nascent cultural development. A pattern of appearing to support the Arts whilst actually ignoring the importance of the grassroots creative community where all of the talent bubbles up from.

Last year, I did something wild. I threw in my job in order to pursue a dubious creative idea that I’d been ruminating about for far too long. I had reached the crossroads where I either had to give it a crack, or to forever let it go. It was an empowering, exhilarating and stupid thing to do. I learnt a bucketload, but often wasted entire days or even entire weeks. And despite the big gamble, ultimately I didn’t reach the point that I had set out for.

However, by immersing myself in some of this city’s creative corners, studios and writing rooms – I learnt a little of what it means to be an artist in Sydney.

One thing that jumped out at me immediately was that Sydney does have a rich coterie of truly jostling, ambitious and generous creative folk. A community that is talented and passionate and who continues to show up to create – every single day.

Sadly though, members of our local creative community get little individual financial support from the NSW State Government and they create in a city where their momentum is consistently stifled.

This is a community that is invested in exploring what it means to live in a young culture like Australia. A community that explores what it means to be a Sydneysider. It is a community that yearns for more small gallery space to show the public their work in. It’s a community who needs more venues to perform in, so they can thump their bass drums and thrash those sexy guitars. These are people who create things to give to the community because they are insightful and curious about this exciting city in which we live and want to share that with us.

Yet, juxtaposed right alongside the challenges that this creative community faces to survive – sits the the reality of just how easy life has been made for an establishment like the casino. An establishment that appears to have little interest in contributing to the community. An establishment that operates upon a shrewd and time-tested business model geared to eventually always win. A gambling industry that causes inestimable social damage and is skilled at taking the hard-earned dollars of the most vulnerable.

The Star Entertainment Group share price when Mike Baird came to power on 17 April, 2014 was $2.79 per share. Only three months ago (Oct 2016), this share price had steadily grown to a price of over $6.00 per share. The value of the casino had more than doubled under this State Government. Where the grassroots creative community in this city fights to survive, the Casino has apparently only thrived.

The art world has historically often relied upon the patronage of the wealthy, the upper classes and burgeoning businesses. Call out any of the great painters, for example – Goya, Manet or Caravaggio – and you can be sure that at one point they had a backer with plenty of cash. If we are to have a vibrant and exciting Festival, we will likely always need sponsors.

We elect our politicians to make decisions and to select partners that share our values, act maturely and have the best interests of the community at heart. There is a responsibility for our elected representatives to only select sponsors that have similar cultural values to those of the cultural event that they are contributing money towards. It is the responsibility of the government and festival organisers to ethically curate those who they align themselves with.

Selecting a business like the city’s only casino to be the largest sponsor of our most important cultural event is not just bad taste. In my opinion, it is probably also unethical and it’s undeniably culturally negligent.

With Casino Mike days away from exiting stage left, we can only hope that Gladys and the people she surrounds herself with will learn from the cultural mistakes made by Baird and his cronies. We can also only hope that she will operate with more class.

Returning home after the coffee shop, still jittery from the caffeine and the anger, I placed the Festival guide on the bench and considered it. There were so many interesting things to go and see. There was so much discussion about a city that I love. However, I made the decision that I simply couldn’t go. It just didn’t feel right to me. And to think I’d been so damn prepared and excited by it all! “Oh well – there’s always next year” I thought to myself. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to go next year.

Published by the Daily Review - January 2017

Joseph O'Donoghue

Discussion and comment about Australia's young, vibrant and emerging culture - our own blank canvas.

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