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Dark Mofo festival future uncertain due to coronavirus, may have 'run its course'

ABC Business logoABC Business 15/06/2021 By Liz Gwynn and Kate Ainsworth
a group of people posing for the camera: Pope Alice and performers are part of the 2021 program. (Pope Alice: Dark Mofo 2021) © Provided by ABC Business Pope Alice and performers are part of the 2021 program. (Pope Alice: Dark Mofo 2021)

The creative director of Tasmania's popular winter festival Dark Mofo has given his strongest indication yet that this year's event could be the last, saying the event had "perhaps run its course".

The future of the festival, which prides itself on celebrating the weird and wonderful during Tasmania's darkest days of the year, remains uncertain with both domestic and international border closures causing the event's bottom line to take a hit.

Late on Tuesday, Tasmania's public health director Mark Veitch confirmed the state would not ease its borders with greater Melbourne in time for the week-long winter festival.

Typically, interstate tourists make up 65 per cent of all ticket sales and about 80 per cent of those are solely purchased by travellers from Melbourne.

Before coronavirus, ticket sales from Melbourne tourists alone generated around $2 million in revenue for the festival, which in 2019 made a total of $11 million — some $8 million more since it first began in 2013.

Dark Mofo's creative director Leigh Carmichael said that after last year's cancellation because of COVID-19, this year's event had been planned with the expectation there could be border restrictions.

"As a response to COVID-19 restrictions, we have radically reduced the number of ticketed shows and reduced the risk in the event of border closures," Mr Carmichael said in a statement.

"We have focused more heavily on the free art program, which has more flexibility around date changes."

Mr Carmichael said he expects the festival to be "probably OK" despite missing its typical Melbourne crowds. 

"It's always firstly and foremost been a festival for Tasmanian people to celebrate winter, and the longest night of the year in Australia," he said.

But when asked how Dark Mofo's future was looking, Mr Carmichael said the festival in its current format was under review.

"Perhaps it's run its course?" he said.

"Festivals are hard in COVID times, so we'll wait to make a decision after this year's event.

"We'll use the audience response as a guide to inform a view about the future."

Another big change is within the ranks of Dark Mofo organisers themselves. 

Festival co-founder Kate Gould is finishing up to take on the top job at Brisbane Powerhouse from next month. 

"Kate has been a driving force behind the scenes from the beginning … she is almost irreplaceable for Dark Mofo," Mr Carmichael said.

No stranger to controversy

While the Dark Mofo festival has been credited for providing a much-needed financial lifeline to Tasmanian businesses during the quietest months, it hasn't been without controversy. 

Mr Carmichael was forced to apologise earlier this year after the festival announced it had commissioned an artwork from Spanish artist Santiago Sierra that would have featured a Union Jack flag soaked in the blood of Aboriginal Tasmanians and First Nations people.

The artwork prompted a wave of backlash from Aboriginal groups across the country, as well as MONA staff and the artistic director of the museum's summer festival, Mona Foma.

There were also growing calls for the festival to be boycotted.

It was the first time Dark Mofo has ever cancelled a planned art installation for the festival because of an outcry.

The festival also attracted public backlash in 2017 when volunteer participants smeared themselves in the bloody entrails of a slaughtered bull, as part of a performance by Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch.

In 2018, several inverted, illuminated crosses were installed around Hobart's wharves, a move that critics said invited "dark forces" to the city.

But for all the controversies past and present, the global pandemic may have proven to be the festival's ultimate challenge.

"It's been very difficult for many reasons, more complicated than normal, and festivals are difficult at the best of times," Mr Carmichael said.

Public fears return to pre-Mofo dark

A post about the festival's uncertainty on ABC Hobart's Facebook page brought a storm of support.

Sue Stagg called Dark Mofo a "true beacon of light in the Hobart winter."

"As a resident and as a business owner, I want to thank the incredible Leigh Carmichael and the whole team that have brought this unique festival into our city. I implore you to continue into the future. I for one do not want to see the return of our pre-Dark Mofo winters.

"My kids look forward to Dark MOFO as much as Christmas," wrote Sofi Fiya.

"The achievement of Leigh Carmichael is undeniable," James Shuvus Williamson said.

"He transformed Hobart in the middle of our dark winter to one of the most desirable locations in the country, hotels and accommodation fully booked. Has employed hundreds of those who work in the arts industry. Paints the city red. He deserves a key to the city in perpetuity."

Others suggested it may have run its course.

"All good things come to an end. It allows for others to invent something grand," wrote Gina Scott.

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