Miriam Zolin clarifies things around the Wangaratta Jazz Festival

We have received a letter from Miriam Zolin, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues (and this website’s founding editor), addressing all the issues that have came up recently, leading to the decision to cancel the 2019 edition of the festival. It is a very important contribution to the public discourse around the issue – offering valuable insight on the cultural events sector in Australia as a whole.
Miriam has asked us to include the statement that her views in this letter are her own and that she has not sought the approval of the current Board before sending it out to friends and colleagues.

A letter that provides background and asks for your support.

Written by Miriam Zolin and sent to friends and colleagues who love jazz and improvised music and appreciate the importance of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues. February 2019


Why we need you now. Why we’ve always needed you.

The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues is more than a festival. It’s a big, beautiful idea. It’s a dream that came true in 1990, and sits larger in all our minds and hearts than the three days a year that contain it.

You may have heard that we have made the tough decision not to hold the 30th anniversary of the festival in its 30th year, and instead, to wait until 2020. As the Chair of the Board that has put the festival on hiatus this year, the response to our decision has felt like a barrage. So many instances of the words ‘shock’ and ‘dismay’.

Yet in those words, there is a light of hope that this festival and the dreams it carries is not dead. (If the response had been ‘Meh’ I’d be singing a different song.) If we’re shocked and dismayed by the need to take a break, then the dream is still alive, and were still holding on to it. It can be rescued.

And that’s where you come in.


Three wishes for the festival

For this festival, I would wish these three things, and if we can achieve them then I believe that the festival has a solid chance at a sustainable future into the long term.

  • An annual festival over three days in beautiful North East Victoria
  • A pool of generous and enthusiastic financial contributors
  • A board of committed, experienced and skilled thinkers who also have the capacity to dream

Financial contributions

Government has a role to play in financing important events like this one, but we also need to become at least partially self-sustaining…

We’ve not been great at reaching out to the people who love the festival and asking for donations. In 2019 we’ll be putting together a formal donor program with the help of some experts, including Creative Partnerships Australia, but meanwhile we’re starting the ball rolling with a simple donation program to gauge the public appetite to assist us in this way.

The page has more information about where your donations will go, but here are some examples:

  • A $15 donation could pay for a meal voucher for an artist, volunteer or production crew at the 2020 festival
  • A $50 donation can help us ensure that a volunteer has a tee-shirt, meals and access to a break room for the 2020 festival
  • Your $100 donation is a great contribution to the running costs during this planning year including telephone, internet and rent
  • A $250 donation can cover accommodation or travel for an artist in 2020
  • A $500 donation can contribute to the cost of our strategic review activities in 2019
  • A donation of $1000 can help fund the National Jazz Awards in 2020 and beyond.

Become a Board member or spread the word to someone you know who is right for the role

We have quite a few vacancies to fill, so the Board this year will be part of something very special. The Board in 2019 is creating the next step on the journey. It will be a strategic year, with much lower personal financial liability than board members are usually exposed to.

We’ve had some nominations, from excellent candidates there’s room for more, and we’re missing a few key skill sets.


The Board’s work this year will be exciting for the right people. If they know and love the festival they’ll be truly creating the future. But our need for a solid foundation means that we need a Board that knows how to guide an organisation through this kind of transition.

We know those people are out there – can you help us reach them? Ideally we need expressions of interest by Wednesday 27 February but we’ll extend beyond that date if we don’t get the team we need.

A note about personal liability: As you may be aware, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues is an incorporated association under the Associations Incorporation Reform Act 2012. Under the terms of the Act, directors (the Board) are personally liable for the any losses incurred by the festival, and remain liable for a year after they leave the Board. So this year, the new Board members were personally liable for any loss the festival may have incurred, despite the fact that we did not create the situation we find ourselves in. The Rural City of Wangaratta underwrote the festival to mitigate this personal risk. Instead of (a) running away or (b) hoping for the best, we are doing our best to make sure that the festival’s future Boards do not have to face this situation again, by recruiting a Board that will give us our best shot at a bright future.

Why am I the Chair? How did that happen?

After moving to Mansfield in 2015 (Mansfield is an hour from Wangaratta) I toyed with the idea of joining the Board at the festival. I’d been involved with the festival since 2004, as a punter, blogger and then of course with the extempore Journal launches held at the Wangaratta Library. I had the honour of speaking on stage to visiting artists Gerald Clayton (2013), Enrico Rava (2014) as well as local dignitary John Poche (2018) and festival partner (through the Australian Jazz Real Book) Tim Nikolsky (2017). I’d had some frustrations about certain ways the festival was run. I thought they communicated poorly with us, missing the joy and enthusiasm that should accompany the communications coming from a festival that’s this important to the Australian cultural landscape and the jazz scene, and presenting work in this artform but I also knew that I was looking at the festival through my own filters and I know I can get a bit fierce, with higher than reasonable expectations of others.

You won’t see me at many live gigs (mainly because I am an early riser) but the music continues to be an essential part of my life and I am compelled to celebrate, talk about it, support it, in any way I know how. I can’t explain the reasons behind that except in the usual trite terms that you’ve probably heard from me before – a debt of gratitude for the way this particular type of music opens me up, helps me write, gives me joy and carries emotion straight to my heart. It soothes, stimulates, and seems essential.

In 2018 I decided to put my hat in the ring and nominate for the Board of the festival. I got in. Immediately I could see ways that I could help. My worry mainly stemmed from what I could see from my new vantage point – “the inside” – that our, funder, partner and stakeholder relationships were not being nurtured. I knew I could help with that.

Then on 14 August, the festival’s event managers for eight years resigned with 30 days notice. The Board was faced with a tough decision. The question of personal liability raised its head. We are all volunteers, yet we opted to carry on, because we were committed to the festival. There were key go / no-go decision points along the way, based on the contracts we had with artists and production teams. As a Board we understood our responsibilities and the risks. We met regularly, stayed in constant contact and again and again made the decision to continue with 2018 and work towards the 30th anniversary being held in 2019.

Meanwhile, the personal liability and the financial risks took their toll on the Board, with a couple of Board members resigning because of the impact on their professional lives.

In the end, we did it! With a very skilled artistic team and the help of an event manager who stepped into the breach to do the production side of things, we pulled it off, despite a depleted Board and financial issues. I took on the marketing and the admin – at this point I am still doing those and will continue to do so until we hire someone in the coming weeks. I’m working up to 10 hours a week for the board doing admin and marketing – for free, on top of my role as Chair.

The pressure on us all was immense in the lead up to the festival, and in the following weeks as the bills started coming in. The Rural City of Wangaratta had offered to underwrite the festival up to a maximum of $100K when we received news of the resignation of our event managers in August. As the festival proceeded, we had to let the Rural City know that we would need to call on some or all of that amount. Our Chair at the time was a business owner who was being impacted by the requirements of the role. He needed to stand down from the office bearer position and I told him that if he did, I would nominate for the role and carry it until the AGM. And that’s what I’ve been doing, including leading the Board as we had to figure out what to do for 2019. Regardless of whatever people might think about the decision we made as a Board about putting the festival on hiatus for a year, I can honestly say that given the options it was the best decision to make. I stand by it and if you put us back there, I’m sure wed end up at the same place, despite the intensely horrified response to it. I didn’t make the decision – I was part of a team. But what I brought to the table included a clarity about the importance of the festival’s long term future, an understanding that its importance spreads well beyond the bounds of the Rural City of Wangaratta, and an ability to articulate a positive message about what the short term pain of the decision could do for us long term.

I don’t know if I will remain on the Board after the AGM on 4 March. As you can imagine, the last seven months have taken a hell of a toll. My mind changes every day. Much will depend on what kind of people we can attract to the Board, and the response to our donations page. Those two bits of information will tell me whether enough people care enough to give this festival a future.

And if it’s not important to enough people, so be it. With every closing door, another door opens. That’s the way of the world.

And that’s my story, written for you –thepeople who share my love of this music, and who understand the importance of the festival in our history and its potential to be important into our futures.

If you have questions about this letter, or ideas about other ways to offer support, please contact me at the festival or using my personal address. miriam@extempore.com.au , businessmanager@wangarattajazz.com, Tel 0407 664 202