We speak to Midsumma chief executive Karen Bryant about how funding via City of Melbourne’s Event Partnership Program helped the festival adapt and prosper in 2021.
Even as COVID ran rampant through Victoria, postponing and closing many venues, events and festivals Melburnians love so dearly, cultural event operators were faced with difficult choices. To hibernate, waiting out the lockdown-induced carnage, or to pivot, using whatever means were available to them.
Although Midsumma’s 2020 instalment beat COVID by a few weeks and went ahead with record crowds, its 2021 situation was not so rosy, with the prospect of running an event amidst the stigma and uncertainty of COVID a tough reality.
City of Melbourne’s Event Partnership Program provided the much-needed financial support for Midsumma to successfully pivot, prepare and produce their triumphant 2021 instalment. Its story is one that should inspire and encourage other would-be event organisers, large or small, to follow its example and apply for the funding program with confidence.
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Karen Bryant is the chief executive and creative director at Midsumma Festival, Australia’s leading LGBTQIA+ arts and cultural festival.
Since its inception more than 30 years ago, Midsumma has sought to be a diverse and inclusive event that provides a platform for queer storytelling and represents the voices of those at the margins.
The annual summer festival revolves around a curated events lineup and a community-driven open access stream, which comprises around 200 events across live music, theatre, visual art, spoken word, cabaret and film.
While Midsumma was one of the fortunate festivals to get through its 2020 event without any COVID intrusions, the 2021 instalment had to be pushed back a few months, running from April 19 – May 5.
“We got our  festival up in its full glory and more than 360,000 people attended. It was really great,” says Bryant.
COVID hit just weeks after the 2020 festival ended and the Midsumma team essentially spent nine months in limbo while attempting to nail down a plan for 2021. The initial budget estimations for this year’s event were based on an expectation that Midsumma would continue to grow as it had done in the three years previous (a time in which the festival audience increased by 63% and the event size more than doubled).
“We were on a real trajectory,” says Bryant. “Sponsorship had doubled in those years and everything was looking really rosy.”
Bryant and the team drew up a draft budget in May 2020, at which point there was still genuine optimism that large-scale live events would return in force by the summer. But once they learned that a number of mainstay sponsors and philanthropic donors were rescinding their contributions for the next financial year, the outlook began to darken.
“We lost over half a million dollars of pre-existing revenue by the time we hit June,” says Bryant. “From there it was a struggle to raise income to just keep the doors open. It was about, ‘Can we protect everyone’s jobs? Can we keep things happening?’”
The centrepiece of the annual festival is Midsumma Carnival, a single-day outdoor party that’s free and accessible to all. The Carnival doubles as the festival’s launch event and usually welcomes somewhere in the vicinity of 120,000 people.
Given the scale of Midsumma Carnival, Bryant and the team ran into some real headwind trying to make it viable for 2021.
“We modelled it at 20,000 and then we modelled it at 10,000 people and realised that the spend wasn’t going to be viable,” says Bryant.
“To put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an event – and it would’ve cost a lot more than normal having to fence it and implement all the COVID-safe mechanisms – and know there was a really good chance it probably wouldn’t happen.”
Once it was decided that Midsumma Carnival wouldn’t be happening in 2021, they started thinking about alternative options for the festival centrepiece. This ultimately gave rise to the inaugural Midsumma Festival Live at the Bowl: a two-night concert spectacular at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl featuring comedy, music and performance.
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Funding for Midsumma Festival Live at the Bowl came via the City of Melbourne’s Event Partnership Program – an initiative designed to support free and accessible events and festivals that are “uniquely Melbourne”.
“[City of Melbourne] were really, really supportive,” says Bryant. “I pitched them, ‘Ok, if we could make this work, we’re looking at a couple of nights at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, we’d like you to be the major partner for that’. And they were 100 per cent supportive of that.”
Without the EPP support, Bryant says it’s unlikely Midsumma could’ve pulled off such a big centrepiece event in 2021.
“We’ve had over 150 events in the last couple weeks and there was a lot of work making those events happen. The City of Melbourne support has enabled that centrepiece, which was the jewel in the crown for us this year.
“Having the Sidney Myer Music Bowl was also really special because it’s not something Midsumma had done before. It was something really special and unique that we really needed.”
Midsumma Pride March is happening on Fitzroy St, St Kilda on Sunday May 23.
The City of Melbourne’s Event Partnership Program is accepting applications from now until Monday May 31 to provide funding for free and accessible events planned for 2022. Find out more here.