Marieke Hardy has quit her post as artistic director of the Melbourne Writers Festival two years into a three-year contract as the organisation grapples with a cost blowout and historic deficit.
Hardy announced at a donor event on Thursday night that she was stepping down.
MWF Board chair John Jerome Myers said in a statement that Hardy had told the board she wished to pursue other artistic opportunities, including spending more time on her own writing.
The festival’s financial records, filed with the charities regulator, show that the 2018 festival, Hardy’s first, had a massive blowout in costs, with program and production costs soaring from $334,000 to $485,000, while fees paid to writers and performers jumped from $190,000 to $312,000.
The festival saw a $144,837 leap in revenue from ticket sales from 2017, halting a steady decline since 2013. While donations, grants and subsidies have fluctuated, the festival’s income has remained relatively stable.
But the increased expenditure helped drive a loss of $195,271, more than 10 times the $11,800 loss declared in 2017.
Cash on hand plummeted from $469,000 to $267,000.
A festival spokeswoman said the organisation’s financial position had nothing to do with Hardy’s departure.
“No, this reinvestment is part of the board’s strategy to reposition the festival by offering a wider range of experiences and delivering higher production values,” she said. “This investment coincided with our highest and second highest box-office takings.”
She declined to provide financial figures for the current year, which would take in Hardy’s second festival, saying they would be filed with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission when they were due.
Asked if the festival was solvent, she said: “Yes, absolutely.”
Hardy’s appointment in late 2017 coincided with the festival shifting to a co-director model, with the festival’s long-time general manager, Shona Barrett, taking the reins as chief executive while Hardy took the role of artistic director – roles that had previously been held simultaneously by Lisa Dempster.
Hardy came into the role after the worldwide success of the literary salon events series Women of Letters – a series she founded with current Sydney Writers Festival director Michaela McGuire – and 11 years as a panellist of ABC TV’s The Book Club.
Hardy’s first festival program, which included a funeral party for (living) actor Magda Szubanski, a pet remembrance ceremony and a large suite of theatre performances, was controversial among the tight-knit literary community.
“The common thread from publishers seems to be that this is not a writers’ festival,” then-Melbourne University Publishing director, Louise Adler, said in 2018. “This is a festival about performance and theatre and mourning one’s dead pet and people in search of a hug.”
Others were more sympathetic to Hardy’s desire to reimagine what a writers’ festival could be, and lauded the program for its inclusivity, empathy and originality, with writers such as Michelle Law saying they felt it represented “the status quo shifting, new and underrepresented voices breaking through”.
Hardy said in response to criticism at the time that she was “not interested in placing things in the world that hurt people” and that she was approaching festival programming with “a more altruistic perspective”.
In announcing her exit from the festival, Hardy said the past two years had been “a confetti cannon of experience, steep learning, comradeship and celebration”.
“MWF is family to me and I will continue to hover around its fringes like a lightly tipsy and effusive aunt. I leave with a song in my heart and immense gratitude for this shared slice of the world. I’m so glad we were all alive at the same time.”