Vivid Sydney has been a great success story. Since 2009, record numbers have been turning out to see our city alight with art, innovation and technology, boundary-pushing artists, thinkers, musicians and culinary experts.
It’s a glorious grab-bag of diverse experiences and the festival’s continuing growth in attendances maintains the proud heritage of Sydney Harbour belonging to all and is testimony to the importance of public space.
However, Vivid has put a price on what used to be free, and people are reportedly voting with their feet and staying away in droves.
This year, a family of four could pay $128 to see the Vivid event Lightscape in the Royal Botanic Garden. In 2019, Vivid events in the garden were free. A spokesperson for the Botanic Garden said about 8000 people were attending Lightscape each night. When the event was free, tens of thousands attended, requiring significant security and infrastructure to protect the gardens.
But it transpires that Vivid organisers have signed a multi-year contract with Sony Music covering two Vivid Sydney events: Lightscape in the Botanic Garden and Dark Spectrum at Wynyard. Visitors still have a free 8.5 kilometre Light Walk taking in Circular Quay, the Rocks, Barangaroo, Darling Harbour, Darling Square, Darling Quarter, The Goods Line and Central Station.
Such commercialisation of public spaces raises the question: is this the start of a slippery slope when a price is put on public places?
The NSW government, which inherited the current festival arrangements, has confirmed Vivid Sydney had entered into a multi-year agreement with Sony at the gardens. Details of displays scheduled in future Vivid programs had yet to be confirmed.
The sudden move into charging admission to commercial productions flies in the face of how Vivid achieved such popularity, namely by being free entertainment. Since its smaller beginnings, the festival has continued to attract larger crowds with each passing year. Destination NSW said that 2.58 million people attended Vivid 2022 over its 23-day run, up from 2.4 million in 2019, when the festival was previously held after being cancelled for two years due to the pandemic.
Business Sydney executive director Paul Nicolaou has written to the NSW Arts Minister John Graham to ask the government to make the garden’s Vivid celebration free because it was a community event and businesses benefited from the influx of visitors and such a deal should not reoccur. “We need to ensure that people can enjoy the beauty of our city,” he said. “It’s no good locking it up or charging people for these facilities when they’re all taxpayer funded.”
The Herald agrees but such commercialisation of public spaces has to be offset against the needs of public organisations which are clearly feeling the pinch. The Royal Botanic Garden has been forced to increase its commercial revenue through major events, venue hire, leases and licences in response to $52.7 million in government cuts over the past nine years.
Premier Chris Minns agreed that access to the foreshore for major events, including Vivid, should be free, but he would not rip up contracts made by the previous government. “That’s important for commercial stability in the state,” Minns said.
The premier’s hyperbole sits at odds with his strident criticism of the previous government over so-called secret deals on privatisation and contracts. Obviously, there are big dangers in the over-commercialisation of much loved public spaces but renegotiating the Sony contract could provide transparency and prevent a repetition of such a done deal being foisted on an unsuspecting public.