Melbourne’s newest major arts festival, Rising, has been thrown into turmoil the day after opening with the Victorian government announcing a seven-day statewide lockdown from Thursday night.
The hotly anticipated winter arts festival opened on Wednesday after an extended wait, only to “hit pause” on Thursday as the city entered a “circuit-breaker” lockdown that closed indoor and outdoor entertainment and arts venues and prohibited public gatherings.
The acting premier, James Merlino, announced the lockdown on Thursday morning to halt the spread of what he called a “highly infectious” Covid-19 variant, spreading “faster than ever recorded”.
Rising was due to run until Sunday 6 June. At the time of writing, the lockdown was scheduled to run until Friday 4 June.
In response to the public health directive, Rising cancelled all events from 5pm Thursday until 4 June and committed to issuing refunds for all tickets for that period. “A decision in relation to events scheduled between 4 June and 6 June will be made over the coming week,” a statement issued by the festival said.
Rising had been initially scheduled for 2020 but was cancelled due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Melbourne particularly hard, sending the city into back-to-back lockdowns that extended from March until October, and into a third snap lockdown earlier this year.
In the wake of the pandemic, and in particular the travel restrictions that were still in place internationally and instituted regularly between Australian states, Rising co-directors Hannah Fox and Gideon Obarzanek developed a predominantly local program: 113 events and public art installations featuring 800 artists, more than 750 of whom were Victorian.
Speaking on Thursday after the announcement, Fox said that while everyone involved with the festival was devastated, they had been “preparing for every eventuality”.
“This is the toughest one to deal with. We planned this festival during the last lockdown, so it was always a possibility,” she said.
Festival headliners included the artist Patricia Piccinini’s first solo exhibition in Melbourne in nearly 20 years in the historic, dilapidated upstairs of Flinders Street station; a two-month-long musical performance along the city’s rivers; and The Wilds, which transformed the Sidney Myer Music Bowl into a supernatural forest.
“It’s been such a monumental amount of work and jumping through hurdles to get to this point of opening. It really felt like we’d made something that speaks to Melbourne,” Fox said.
Prior to the lockdown announcement, the only event that had been substantially affected by restrictions introduced earlier this week was Buŋgul, a show that involved a number of Yolŋu performers from north-east Arnhem Land.
“Coming from such a remote part of Australia, the company was anxious to get home and we supported them in that decision,” Fox said.
Audiences and artists had “overwhelmingly been understanding and kind”, she said.
Fox would not comment on which events they expected to cancel entirely or which would be rescheduled.
“We’re not making any knee-jerk decisions right now. It’s a large and complex event and our major priority is making sure that all our artists and staff are safe. So we’re pressing pause, and we’ll regroup after that and figure out what’s happening.”
Rising is not the only Melbourne arts organisation to have a major opening affected by the lockdown. The National Gallery of Victoria had been set to open its new Winter Masterpieces exhibition, French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on Thursday next week. That will now be postponed until restrictions ease.
Merlino said on Thursday that in the absence of jobkeeper there would be “additional support” for businesses affected by the lockdown that would be announced in coming days, but it was not clear if or how any support would affect arts organisations.