After four years, executive director Max Tweedie has stepped down from Auckland Pride. He tells Sam Brooks about shepherding the festival through a tumultuous few years, and where he’s going from here.
This year’s Auckland Pride Festival is set to be the biggest one yet. Over the course of more than 100 events, Auckland will celebrate its queer community and the queer community will celebrate itself. This year’s programme encompasses everything from professional theatre, to drag artistry, to community-led events that include parties, speed dating and even touch rugby.
It’s a pirouette back into the action for the festival after the cancellation of the 2022 programme due to the omicron outbreak. It’s also the final festival for Auckland Pride executive director Max Tweedie, who is stepping down after four years in the role. It’s been a transitional era for the festival, one that has seen it grow not to just the outer edges of the city, but to encompass as much of Auckland’s queer community as possible. It’s been Tweedie’s job to shepherd the festival through it all.
A Wellington native, Tweedie didn’t have a simple pathway into the job. Having started his career in politics, as a co-leader of the Greens’ youth wing and deputy campaign manager for MP Jan Logie, he was working at the New Zealand Aids Foundation (now the Burnett Foundation Aotearoa), when almost by accident, he became a prominent voice in the debate that was dividing the queer community at the time: should the police be allowed to march in uniform in the Pride Parade? This question would eventually cause the infamous schism that led to the resignation of the board, and the forming of the breakaway organisation Rainbow Auckland Pride.
Tweedie live-tweeted the first, fiery community hui on the issue, and in its aftermath found himself fielding inquiries from journalists who knew him through his work at the Aids Foundation. “The Auckland Pride board at the time weren’t really doing any media on it,” Tweedie says. “So I initially became their de facto spokesperson, and they asked me to do media interviews on their behalf.”
It wasn’t long before he was popping up on media outlets throughout the country and even the world, a trend that has continued through to this very week, when he appeared on the BBC to discuss Campbell Johnstone, the first openly gay All Black.
Tweedie’s politics were clear from the beginning: Pride was for marginalised communities, not the entrenchedestablishment. “If Pride was doing its job, it would be inclusive of its Māori communities, people of colour, trans people, and so I fought for that,” he says.
The combination of his politics (not radical, but still confronting for the more conservative part of the community), his outspokenness (22,000 tweets and counting) and his profile (Pride got a lot of mainstream media coverage around this time) probably made him a lock for the director job when it came up in April 2019. Despite that, he didn’t think he’d get it, but he sailed through an interview, and was offered the gig.
He says it’s “been a political job of some sorts,” an understatement to put it mildly. From the beginning, he felt there was a need to keep Pride true to its values while also bringing sponsors back onboard, getting funders involved, and encouraging the community to engage and actually want to participate. It felt inevitable to Tweedie that he ended up being the spokesperson not just for Pride, but the rainbow community in general.
He explains that since organisations like Rainbow Youth, the NZAF, Outline and Inside Out have siloed tasks, or are government funded, they tend to be reluctant to speak out on hot-button issues. And so the media would come to him instead. “And when producers and journalists have your number, they keep calling you.”
While he might’ve fielded all of those calls and interview requests when he started the job, he tends to take fewer of them now, passing the baton to people who might be more qualified to speak on behalf of their specific part of the community. “It’s important for Pride to be political, and I wanted to make sure that Pride had a political voice publicly.”
Tweedie’s other obvious success in his four years at the helm is the festival’s spectacular growth. That growth is especially remarkable when you consider that three of those festivals existed very much under the shadow of Covid. “The numbers don’t lie,” he says with some well-deserved pride. “The 2018 festival had an attendance of 42,000 people and 86 events. In 2021, we had 75,000 people, 203 events. The income has quadrupled since I took over.”
The role of the Pride Festival has also become better defined. A glance at the 2023 programme shows that it’s now positioning itself as a community festival and an arts festival at the same time – it both serves the community and platforms their voices. “The festival is, at its core, people telling the stories of Tāmaki Makaurau through art, whether it’s performance or visual,” Tweedie says.
That decision was what led to the Pride Gala, one of the crown jewels of festivals past, being discontinued this year in favour of Pride Elevates, a programme that gives money and platforms to artists in the community. “The gala served audiences, not artists. We had to figure out how to invest the money that we would spend on the gala into the actual festival we’re meant to be putting on, to build more sustainable careers.”
He credits the team around him – including previous creative director Elyssia Wilson-Heti, kaiwhakahaere takatāpui Hāmiora Bailey, and current creative director Nathan Joe – for moving the festival in that direction. “Max and I are very different people in terms of how we engage in the role of arts administrators and programmers,” says Joe. That contrast has meant the two “don’t always see eye to eye, but these differences are something we have grown to really respect in one another”.
Joe adds: “His ability to create a festival that holds up and punches above its weight is truly an epic achievement. I cannot tell you how many people believe Auckland Pride is more well resourced than it is for that very reason.”
The start of Tweedie’s tenure came at a time when the community was debating, in personal and sometimes vicious terms, what Pride’s future should look like, or if it even should have one at all. Tweedie admits now that even while arguing passionately for the festival’s survival, he still had doubts that people would want to invest in Pride, financially or even just in spirit. In fact, it was possible “and now we have a Pride festival that everyone knows is rooted in more progressive values, that knows we value representing the communities we serve – and it’s actually financially feasible”.
That’s part of why he’s leaving now: he believes the festival is in a strong position to keep achieving what it set out to do. There’s more that he wishes he could have done – Covid ended up turning him into a sort of firefighter, dealing first with the 2021 lockdown and then the omicron outbreak that eventually led to the cancellation of 2022 – but the festival as it stands right now is doing A Lot.
“We’re positioned as this community organisation that has a board and a membership that’s accountable,” he says. “We’re in the art space. We’re in the activism and advocacy space. We’re a charity. We deliver events.”
It’s not just the festival that is doing that, though. The role of director also asks a lot. Joe points out that Tweedie has filled the roles of programme coordinator, creative director, social media manager and production manager. Tweedie agrees, and notes that the person who next steps into the role will need to be just as dynamic. They have to be able to go from doing annual planning, to doing an interview about a policy decision, to managing a team – and to code switch in all of those places too. It’s not spinning plates, it’s spinning precious (gay) china.
So where to next for Tweedie? There’s still his final festival, which runs throughout the month of February, come rain or come shine. After that, he says he’ll be looking for ways to continue making a positive difference, though from a less visible perspective (he definitively rules out standing for the Greens, but intends to support Chlöe Swarbrick’s re-election campaign). “There’s a part of me that is maybe looking to not have to be on all the time,” he says. “You’ll be in a club at 2.30 in the morning and someone wants to start talking to you about work.
“But there’s also a part of me that wonders if I’m not doing that, will I get bored?”
The Auckland Pride Festival runs from February 1 to February 26, with events taking place all over Tāmaki Makarau.