Just six days out from its March launch date, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (MFW) was postponed due to mass-gathering restrictions implemented in the wake of Covid-19. A stacked line-up featuring the likes of Alison Roman, Ignacio Mattos and Stephanie Alexander, and a brand new festival hub at the Queen Victoria Market, made the move all the more heartbreaking for organisers.

“I was super proud of the program,” says Anthea Loucas Bosha, CEO of Food & Wine Victoria. “It showed great diversity [and] had been incredibly well-received by our partners, audience and the media.”

Numerous other festivals have since been scuttled by the pandemic, but there’s hope on the horizon. City of Melbourne recently opened its 2021 Event Partnership Program (EPP), which aims to support organisers planning free and accessible events for 2021.

That’s good news indeed for a city that famously runs on festivals big and small. “The scale of festivals in Melbourne is absolutely extraordinary,” says Al Cossar, artistic director of Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). “When we did a quick audit a couple of years back, we found we were one of around 75 film festivals of various scales happening in the course of a year here. And that was just film.”

Festivals and other communal events are part of Melbourne’s firmament, with wide-ranging impacts. “They help tell the story of who we are [and] how we express ourselves,” says Loucas Bosha, who also cites their importance to the city’s visitor economy. “They provide extraordinary experiences which celebrate the best Melbourne has to offer, be it the arts, sport, or food and drink.”

Fashion also ranks among those defining sectors, and the hugely popular Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF) cancelled the final two days of its 10-day program in light of the restrictions announced in mid-March. But not before Instagram-ruling Australian comedian Celeste Barber made her runway debut, highlighting exactly the kind of culture-shaping moments Melbourne festivals can offer on a regular basis.

“You could feel the temperature shift,” says VAMFF CEO Yolanda Finch. “Not just in that moment in the room, but as a signifier of much greater cultural and social shifts that we, as fashion industry creators, can play a role in elevating and fast-tracking.” Finch singles out this year’s runway appearance by American plus-size model and body activist Ashley Graham as similarly important.

Those are just two ready-made reminders of the moments these events can provide. “Festivals provide definition and focus to whole industries in a snapshot,” says Finch. “With so much thought-provoking activity going on across Melbourne’s diverse cultural communities, it’s no wonder our audiences really support the festivals on our calendar.”

That makes the city’s EPP initiative for 2021 all the more vital. “The outcomes [will be] there for all to see and enjoy,” says Finch. “The ultimate goal is the safe return of visitors, customers and audiences to ‘switch on the city’, particularly to support the retail and hospitality sectors that are so crucial to the experience and liveability of Melbourne.”

Cossar, who has been with MIFF for a decade in a series of productive roles, agrees that these large-scale cultural events unite tradition and innovation under one umbrella to help define a city’s unique personality. Beyond that, they cut across all sorts of peer groups to engage diverse swathes of the population. “Festivals are a great equaliser in bringing together so many different kinds of people,” he says. “They remind us we are part of a community.”

His own personal highlight from MIFF was witnessing firsthand “the deafening, heartening, 2400-person standing ovation” that greeted the festival’s 2019 Opening Night film, Daniel Gordon’s acclaimed documentary The Australian Dream, about footy star Adam Goodes’ harrowing ordeals with racism. “It was so special and singular to me,” says Cossar of the monumental reaction.

Though MIFF may not be able to host its usual programming this year, the iconic event is reinventing itself for the originally planned August dates as an online showcase entitled MIFF 68 1/2. Punters will be able to watch dozens of features and documentaries from around the world without leaving home, plus short films spanning several categories. The full line-up will be announced on July 14, including virtual talks and more.

“[It’s] something we’ve never done before,” Cossar says, adding that the “intention [is] to offer something compelling and creative as a response to challenge and uncertainty.”

Leave it to Melbourne to rally in the face of an unprecedented hit to its cultural bedrock. Whether pivoting or planning for next year, the city’s festival organisers are springing into action just as you’d expect. That includes Anthea Loucas Bosha, who’s already anticipating the return of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.

“We will be back,” she says. “And it will be awesome.”

Interested applicants can find more information about the Event Partnership Program on their website or by emailing the Events Partnership team (eventsponsorship@melbourne.vic.gov.au).

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with City of Melbourne.