Critical discussion of the arts in our popular media is always a good thing. Beyond reviews and industry gossip, the recent string of government reports has stimulated a great deal of debate. Lately we’ve also started to see a questioning of presentation modes such as festivals, accompanied by the ready reflection that in some parts of the country we are swamped by them. In Victoria it seems there is a festival a week.

Some complain there are too many festivals. Among all this talk, there are two sets of people we don’t hear complaining about the large number of festivals: artists and audiences. For artists, festivals offer the opportunity to locate their practice and present their work within a cultural moment. Audiences too love the opportunity of immersing into all that inspiration. Curated or otherwise, every time you pick up a festival guide you are holding a critically timely interpretation of artistic thought, experimentation and craft.

To choose your own adventure all you have to get your hands on one of those festival programs and treasure its twists and turns. Festivals offer their entire program as a work, a cultural moment, a snapshot in time. They provide focused critical engagement for the arts world, while at the same time offering new experiences for new audiences. Balancing these contradictory objectives is a challenge – especially as they unfold in public space.

What defines a festival is not merely a specific duration, an artform focus, curatorial work or a loyal audience. More than any of these key elements, a festival makes art public – and this is its defining quality. From our galleries to our concert halls to our city squares, a festival’s every space becomes a public space: a space where the general public is welcomed; a space where critical discussion becomes social; a space where responses to new work are made in the broad context and against pre-conceived notions of identity and culture.

Existing in open space within finite time, a festival’s mission is to make art public. All across Victoria, highly specialised arts organisations are engaged in highly specialised artform development year-round, fostering deep connections locally, nationally and overseas. Our favourite social sites, however, are uncurated spaces, constantly in flux and dazzlingly diverse. From far away they’re a calm buzz, while from up close they’re abuzz with movement; like any system at equilibrium, they exhibit static macroscopic properties and dynamic microscopic properties.

Then along comes a festival – making a calculated intervention in a space already teeming with ideas. An arts festival must be crafted by the forces that give its home those distinct textures and flavours. It occupies a pre-existing, pre-determined space and never a blank canvas; it stakes a claim for, and thereby recreates, that very space. Art asks new questions, and demands that we do the same.

We’re swamped by festivals in places like Victoria because we’re rich with arts audiences: diverse audiences, distinct yet overlapping, always hungry for new ideas and unique experiences. It’s not arts consumption but engagement that they seek, and our artists – who continue to relocate here in droves – are ever finding new ways to make that connection. I’ve spent a lot of time across the past decade thinking about festivals, experiencing them, making them, creating work for them, writing and broadcasting about them, governing them, and fostering staff who have gone on to develop and direct their own.

As I farewell Melbourne Fringe with its inspiring combination of open-sourced programming and curated provocations, I am struck by the uniqueness of this gift to Melbourne. Unique among fringe festivals around the world, the overwhelming majority of the work presented in Melbourne Fringe’s uncurated Independent Arts Program is made by local independent artists. Thousands of them. To present work in the Melbourne Fringe Festival is to make and remake that community each year – just as it’s been in every one of Melbourne Fringe’s thirty years.

First published in Arts Hub on 4 September 2012