Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues
Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, responds to some questions about the future of this much-loved festival, which has been postponed by a year until 2020 for a “total re-think”:
Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle you were quoted as saying it would have been “a huge risk” to go ahead with the festival this year. Clearly the board felt it would be a greater risk than to defer for one year, with all the implications for local businesses and for breaking the continuity of this event. What had changed that made it riskier to go ahead than to defer?
MZ: It wasn’t so much that anything huge had changed, just that we were able to see things that we hadn’t seen before. Prior to our festival managers resigning there was fairly limited transparency to how the festival was run. Boards have a responsibility to make sure they know what’s going on. They have responsibility for their sponsor and donor relationships, for the wellbeing of their volunteers and for strong, healthy community linkages. More than anything, Boards have serious fiscal responsibility right down to the line items on a budget. This is because Directors (Board members) are individually carrying risk and can be held liable if they’re not making it their business to be informed about the organisation’s workings. I joined the Board in April last year along with a couple of other people and we could see that there were lots of questions that needed answering, and the answers were not very forthcoming. The previous Board had either not been asking the questions, or had been asking and not getting answers. There were issues right down to artist contracts and our constitution, which contradicts itself in a couple of places.
Those of us who were new to the Board were good at asking questions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons our festival managers resigned! It was probably quite annoying.
Once we had delivered the 2018 festival we knew we needed to hire a new festival manager but we needed to fix up those issues we’d uncovered first, or at least know what they were so we could get a new event manager to fix them. It would have been irresponsible of us not to address the multiple issues. As we started to understand the complexities, we also had a couple of Board members resign, so we were doing it all with a smaller team. We were committed to doing it but there just wasn’t capacity to do it concurrently with the work that had to be done for a 2019 festival.
Ausjazz: Also in that Wangaratta Chronicle article you said that the resignation of Adam Simmons from the festival’s artistic team was a tipping point for the board. Frank Davidson also announced he has retired from his role as co-artistic director. Do these departures signal a significant falling out between the board and its artistic directors?
MZ: Adam’s departure was a tipping point mainly because there was no way we could have programmed a festival that celebrated the 30th adequately in the time remaining to us. Adam worked incredibly hard during his time on the artistic team. He believed in the festival’s potential and really busted a gut to get the most out of the artistic budget and help coordinate a great program. For us to be able to proceed, programming would have needed to be well under way by the date of his departure. However the uncertainty that we’d been dealing with for the previous months meant that he had been unable to commit to a number of key artists. Also with his departure we would have had to recruit a new team member and work at a pace that our depleted Board simply could not have stomached. Honestly, no matter what decision we made at this point there would have been too much work to do, but this way, at the end of that hard work there is a greater chance of a future for the festival.
I know that Adam has spoken publicly on Facebook and elsewhere about a difference of opinion that you mention below. I think I missed that. We’d told Adam that we had the same budget in 2019 for the program as we did in 2018, and that we were going to make some changes to how things were managed. The Board had agreed, based on our own observations and input from other individuals that far too much of an admin burden had been unfairly placed on the artistic team. We had also told Adam that we wanted the Event Manager – and until they were hired, the Board – to have an overview of all the funding being applied for. Again, it was about transparency and making sure the right processes were in place, with appropriate roles and responsibilities.
We have to remember that Adam was a member of a team so any programming vision was not just Adam’s; it was a shared vision, but I haven’t had any sense of a difference of opinion from other members of the team. Zoe Hauptmann’s contribution to the programming was huge, as was Frank’s dedication to the Blues. And I can’t speak highly enough of local musician and teacher Scott Solimo. He has been involved in the festival for years and in 2017 and 2018 was responsible for programming the community stage, and helped source staging, backline, sound, lighting… not to mention the strong local connections. What a star. Frank’s decision to resign had no relationship to Adam’s decision – though the timing made them seem connected. Frank had always been very clear that 2019 would be his last year. He is enjoying retirement, and being able to focus on his community radio gig and enjoy the surf where he lives. He had committed to three years of programming at Wangaratta. When we told him about our decision, he made the call to hang up his hat.
Ausjazz: Adam Simmons says the festival has a strong future, yet he has stated publically that he stepped down due to “a difference of opinion about the best way to try and achieve the same goal of moving the festival forward”. Can you elaborate on how Simmons’ vision differed from what the board wanted?
MZ: Again, I can’t speak for Adam. I’ve always held him in high esteem and I know that he had a vision that he would have liked to bring about over a number of years.
I’ve not been able to unpack exactly where Adam feels the disconnect between his vision and the Board’s arose. Last time we spoke about it I think I began to understand the extent of his hopes and dreams for the festival, and that’s a great thing to have in a co-artistic director. One thing we did say to him was that we wanted the 30th to celebrate the legacy of the festival as influencer and shaper of Australian jazz. We felt the idea of looking backwards so we can move forward was an important message for this 30 year milestone. He’s never said that this direction from the Board impinged on his vision, and I hope he would have said if it was an issue. It’s the only thing I can think of.
Ausjazz: You mentioned that last year’s festival was well acclaimed and a fantastic board had been in place. If there was not “a problem with money in the kitty”, why not pay for operational assistance to ease the load on board members and allow their role to remain strategic?
MZ: The 2018 festival went over budget, and the Rural City helped us out with some serious underwriting. The overrun happened around travel, accommodation, infrastructure and production – all aspects of the festival that we had to put in place quickly with minimal negotiating power after our event managers resigned 10 weeks out from the festival. Our draft budget for 2019 was showing that we could have pulled a 2019 festival together, but not with any fat. This would have been our fourth year without a significant surplus, and we needed to change that pattern. Running that close to the line, year after year, is just plain irresponsible. Late last year we also lost our major National Jazz Awards sponsor and failed with two Australia Council for the Arts applications. These seemingly disconnected events constituted a huge risk for our volunteer Board when lumped together. As individual Directors, we wear the loss, except when our very good friends the Rural City of Wangaratta step up to assist, and we have agreed that neither organisation has the appetite for that again.
Ausjazz: What aspects of the structure and organisation of the festival were so deficient that it meant taking a year off to fix them?
MZ: I’ve probably said enough about this above, but more will be shared as we progress through the year.
Ausjazz: You’ve flagged that from the festival’s annual general meeting in March there will be “a total re-think”. What does this mean for the music? Will there be an effort to further broaden the appeal of the festival and how far will this involve moving away from the festival programming as it evolved under the artistic direction of Adrian Jackson?
You’ve said this re-think would include whether the festival should continue to be held on the weekend before Melbourne Cup Day. What other options have been suggested, and why?
MZ: In recent years there have been some extreme weather at the festival, such as floods and heatwaves. Locals have been saying that this time of year is no longer as stable as it used to be. We’re not saying there will be a change, but just that there’s an opportunity to check whether there needs to be. We’ll work with the Rural City of Wangaratta on this one.
Regarding any suggestion of a change in music, the festival is famous regionally, nationally and to some extent internationally as a contemporary jazz music that features exciting collaborations and the best of Australian jazz. It’s an arts festival, which is why it attracts arts funding. While I am involved I will keep singing that tune (or maybe I’ll scat a little). We’re a jazz and blues festival, and I don’t see that changing, not least because of the National Jazz Awards. If the Board membership changes significantly and there’s decision to move away from jazz and improvised music in any significant way, I’d probably not want to be involved. Adrian Jackson was and is a gifted curator and programmer. The team that followed brought their own vision and delivered two wonderful festivals. I’m excited to see what a new Board will choose to program the 30th.
Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle article, mayor Dean Rees said the council would be staging a music festival in November this year that would be “just as big or better for the community”. Given the difficulty faced by the board in continuing to hold a music festival that has been running for 29 years, how realistic is it for the city to stage a totally new and “better” festival in the time available, starting from scratch?
Cr Rees also suggested this new festival would perhaps involve “a new genre of music” and said “it may be time to steer away from jazz”. Does this mean the end of council’s support and effectively the end of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues?
MZ: I can’t speak for the Rural City of Wangaratta and I guess they can’t speak for the festival. I’m not privy to their plans for the weekend and we’ve offered to assist in any way we can, when they start to put some ideas together. We may be able to leverage our significant connections in live music, to attract and support some kind of a placeholder for the festival in 2019.
Although intertwined, we are separate organisations. There’s no doubt that we each provide significant benefit to each other and we’re receiving no indication that the Rural City no longer supports the festival. We’re in discussions with them about what their support will look like and we’re committed to an ongoing partnership. I guess Cr Rees’ response to the news supports the information we’re receiving that this decision was an unwelcome shock to many locals, which tells us we probably should have shared more of what we were going through with the local community so they understood what we were dealing with.
Last year RCoW underwrote the festival, as we ran at a significant loss. Linked with that, we have been really transparent with the Rural City and we want to make sure we work together to minimise the effect of this decision on the local community.
Ausjazz: Finally, a lot of regular patrons have an annual booking with accommodation providers in Wangaratta because they come every year. What do you advise people in this situation to do now that there will not be jazz or blues happening in November and the future of the festival is uncertain?
MZ: I can’t see into the future but I think that if people can wait a couple of weeks to decide, they should – at least until after the AGM on 4 March and until we’ve managed to figure out how we can support the Rural City with whatever they decide to do with that weekend. The accommodation providers will take a hit from this, and I know we’d like to find a way to make sure that’s minimised.
ROGER MITCHELL appreciates the effort by Miriam Zolin to respond so promptly to these questions. Her replies have been published in full.