WHITE Night Melbourne was the biggest carrot Ted Baillieu dangled in front of the arts community during his 2010 election campaign but virtually disappeared once he came into office. Even two months ago nobody had any idea what shape it would take, which put a number of institutions and organisations in a tight spot – were they expected to keep their February calendar free so late in the year, or risk missing out on the party? Was there funding on offer? Then there were logistical questions: keeping your doors open late into the evening can bring in issues of insurance, security, licensing. All of this had better be worth it.
Now that the inaugural program has been released, it's notable for two things. First, it's not very grand. There's not a lot of epic, flashy, international names or guaranteed seat-fillers. Instead, it's full of small works, intimate moments and fleeting experiences. But that's the second point: this gives it a different kind of promise. It might be more representative of Melbourne itself to assemble a vast number of cultural encounters that take place in a back alley, an underground carpark or an old tram.
This is what the bulk of the program consists of, and it's encouraging that it's not just a night-long showcase of flagship companies such as MTC and MSO and Opera Australia, who get by on their own well enough already. I'd rather do a ghost tour of the Arts Centre or play an immersive game centred on the paranormal in Melbourne alleys, watch a story in which my own shadow is the central character, or a “movie” on a mobile vendors cart.
But if the Baillieu government is hoping to win over the small-to-medium sectors of the arts community, he still has a battle ahead. The other legacy he's already offered are the funding cuts that were one of his first major actions as Arts Minister. They amounted to five per cent in real terms, and were applied to all organisations funded by the government. Whether the chance to be part of a one-off event will do anything to make up for that kind of real loss – indeed, whether the money behind White Night comes from those very cuts – might be the real story here.
John Bailey is an arts writer and critic for The Age and The Sunday Age
The story Melbourne's White Night has a different kind of promise first appeared on The Age.