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Photo 2021 burns through around $1 million

Victoria’s Photo 2021, an international biennial festival set to debut in mid-February, had by the end of June last year spent $815K, mostly on salaries, since its inception in early 2019. At that rate of cash burn, it would be safe to assume that the figure is well north of $1 million another six months on – despite the 3-week festival (Feb 18 – March 7) having yet hung a picture on a wall.

Photo 2021’s expenditure from last financial year. Source: ACN.

Photo 2021, formerly known as Photo 2020, burst onto the scene in early 2019 with the big declaration it would join ‘the likes of France’s Rencontres d’Arles‘, and had ‘all the ingredients to become world-leading’.

A crucial ingredient for a ‘world-leading’ photo festival is, of course, money. And the overreaching claims and overall confidence from organisers suggest there is no shortage of the stuff! In March 2019, Inside Imaging asked Photo 2021’s artistic director, Elias Redstone, for an idea of the budget, or where the various pools of funding were coming from and we were stopped in our tracks.

‘We are not currently in a position to discuss the budget,’ he responded. So we were left waiting until Photo 2021 lodged its first financial report with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission in December, 2020.

Hey, big spender

When perusing the 2020 Financial Report, the first big figure to jump out is the cost of employment. In the 2020 financial year, Photo 2021 spent $509K on employee salaries. While the festival officially has just two full-time employees, pre-Covid and leading up to running the postponed inaugural event there were an additional three staff – one full-time and two part-time.

‘Due to the postponement, there was reduction in staff in the last pay period for the 2020 reporting period,’ the report states. ‘During peak times we employed an additional 3 staff (1 FTE, 0.6 FTE x2).’

The 2020 total revenue was $637K, with almost $500K impressively coming from private financial support. This means employment expenditure amounted to around four-fifths of the year’s total revenue. The next biggest expense, advertising and promotion, is way further down on the ladder and in 2020 amounts to $66K. (Photo 2021 is as far as we can understand primarily marketed via social media but so far, the algorithms have by-passed this trade journalist exclusively covering photography. Perhaps not the target audience.)

Lastly in 2020, travel costs amount to $25K – quite high considering half the year was spent at home and indoors. Photo 2021 spent practically all of its 2020 revenue, only just landing in the green with a $4345 surplus.

Fortunately there’s a comfortable $248K reserve from the 2019 surplus, which was achieved by having fewer expenses. Total expenditure was down to $177K in 2019, thanks primarily to there being no employment salaries to pay. Most of the 2019 expenditure ($110K) went toward consultancy, while $52K was spent on advertising and marketing, including the website and a very cool Swiss-designed logo.

So that’s where Photo 2021’s money is going, but where is it coming in?

Photo 2021’s income from the last financial year. Source: ACN

Photo 2021 was brought to life in 2019 with a $100K grant from the City of Melbourne, and a further $194K raised through ‘Seed Funding Donations’. Over two years $173K came from the Cross Yarra Partnership Grant, the consortium overseeing the tax-payer funded Metro Tunnel project, which was slammed last month for blowing out the budget by $2.7 billion. When we’re talkin’ about an infrastructure budget blow-out amounting to billions, it seems like no big deal a couple of hundred thousand was siphoned off to a fledgling arts organisation. It appears this is some kind of sponsorship arrangement, with Photo 2021 holding a range of exhibitions under the banner of the ‘Metro Tunnel Creative Program’.

If you hadn’t already guessed it, Photo 2021 is a darn well-connected organisation and knows the right people in the right places. Private donations account for almost 75 percent of revenue in 2020. ‘Victoria’s wealthiest woman’, Naomi Milgrom, whose private company ARJ Group Holdings owns shopping centre clothing retailers Sussan and Sportsgirl, is on the Photo 2021 board. The festival operates from the Sussan and Sportsgirl head office in Cremorne, with this ‘off-the-books’ in-kind support valued as $100K per annum.

In 2020, the state and local council funding was pulled back to just $20K – a figure more in line with what other Australian photo festivals, such as Sydney’s Head On, have ‘enjoyed‘.

As previously stated, Photo 2021 managed to burn through a total of $815K up to the end of June last year. That’s a significant figure when considering the festival has only produced a website, a program, and a sparsely-watched series of online Covid lockdown artist talks. Of course, with most of the revenue coming from private donations, it seems financial security will come down to continuing to please these rich patrons more than anything else. And that may be partly why we’re yet to see any meaningful engagement with the broad photographic community.

The remaining cash balance on June 30, 2020 was $252,759. We don’t know what new cash injections have arrived in this financial year. It will be interesting to find out how the festival continues on after the inaugural event. Some have tipped it to be a flash-in-the-pan one-off; but who wouldn’t want our very own Rencontres d’Arles?

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