Ballarat doesn’t close roads for cultural events, doesn’t project contemporary work onto its heritage buildings, and doesn’t stay up all night. Well, two out of three myths busted ain’t bad: last night Ballarat showed it could present White Night better than Melbourne, building a passionate momentum that decision-makers will be unable to ignore.

The moment the town hall clock had struck seven, the streets of Ballarat were filling fast. Many thousands of people wandered in keen anticipation, knowing that the sun wouldn’t set for a couple of hours – and Ballarat didn’t disappoint. Neon signs seduced passers-by with expressions of love. Marvellous steampunk boxes rolled through curious crowds offering tantalising shapes and sounds. Giant creatures roamed the streets as monstrous illustrations of that happy purgatory we still shared between angelic daylight and the transgressions of the night.

Once night fell, the city illuminated and faces lit up. Standing at the corner of Lydiard and Sturt, the sheer numbers of faces were overwhelming; more than 40,000 people would come together by the time the evening had ended. Seeing the Post Office Gallery and other iconic heritage buildings come to new life was the focal treat, but importantly, White Night Ballarat had thought through what White Night Melbourne hadn’t: how to make the circulation of people through the streets the event itself.

Laneways and squares off the main streets were the highlights, with sensitively designed spaces of respite also making spaces of wonder: the delightfully low-fi Night Shadows, which had us searching behind us for the hands behind the shadow puppetry; the intimacy of The Space Between, experienced directly among other works, creating a trajectory of welcome rhythm; the Lounge Cinema, Fibre Lane and Lux Populi offering different shapes for the wandering body; the complexity of Do Not Go Gentle drawing us in with great focus and care. Strong Indigenous programming was a stand-out, including Wadawurrung Walking and Blackface (Real Face). The galleries never saw so many people, and at critical times, long and dense queues made it impossible for many to enter at all. It was here in particular that Ballarat succeeded where Melbourne has not: in understanding that the joy, the value and the very purpose of the White Night event model is to distribute people across a city, and not strand them in particular locations. Crowds are not the nuisance of the event; they are the event.

The Mining Exchange swung with retro goodness thanks to the good people at Vichealth, and it was impossible not to dance. Rockabilly/psychobilly shop Lana-Rose knew their audience and were open quite late indeed. Several restaurants and cafés well-known and well-loved by locals were conspicuously closed, no doubt regretting their decision today as they continue to hear stories of last night’s wonders. The majority who did stay open had their biggest nights of the year, distributing a welcome buzz all over town.

And yet, staying up all night was always going to prove a challenge for Ballarat, with no such precedent events and a great many families on the street as well as thousands who’d driven in from neighbouring towns. When things lulled at around 4:00am, organisers shut the event down. This was of great disappointment to those visitors and locals who only arrived at 6:00am hoping to enjoy the final hour and witness the end of the event.

Momentum like this needs to be harnessed: Ballarat has just seen a whole other side to itself, with tens of thousands of people embracing new creative experiences, and hundreds of artists and producers collaborating to move them through Ballarat in new ways. White Night – a wintry platform designed to coax Europeans into sociability despite the snow, a platform rather embarrassingly misinterpreted into the Australian context – will not prove the best vehicle for Ballarat to drive this momentum. Something new will emerge, vindicated by the Victorian Government’s investment, for a transformation all of Ballarat’s own. I can’t wait to see what comes next as Ballarat’s new thinking tosses that platform aside to formulate something unique.

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Here’s the White Night Ballarat response of Bryce Ives, Federation University’s Director of the Arts Academy and Gippsland Centre of Art & Design.
“Our challenge is to unite and dream big. Together we can ask how best to commission and create epic and bold new work for our community. Our existing festivals and events can take the energy of White Night and speak to new possibilities…”

All images by Esther Anatolitis except the image of Bryce Ives, Esther Anatolitis and Daniel Henderson, taken by Adrienne Henderson.