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  • Writer's pictureShelley Pisani

What makes a good arts festival?

For 10 years, I was Artistic Director of a regional arts festival. It was a big learning curve when I first took on the role. A brand new festival with the idea of it being an umbrella marketing profile for existing events with some added new concepts. By the 6th year, it had changed from a month-long calendar to a curated 10-day event. Based on this experience and the benefit of hindsight; I have built this list of what I feel works for an arts-led festival model in a regional setting that I hope resonate with you.

Image: Cover photo for the 2017 Crush Festival program featuring our local Pub Rock Choir in the midst of rich red agricultural soil and planted rows of sweet potatoes, with the flat landscape and wide open blue skies - iconic imagery of our region. Paul Beutel Photography for Creative Regions.

To give context, I was formerly a founding director and eventually the CEO of Creative Regions Ltd, a Bundaberg-based arts production company that had a team that punched well above its weight for 14 years. The Crush Festival was one of its contract deliverables for the Bundaberg Regional Council. The festival developed out of an identified need through community and arts sector consultation. It ran for 10 years, drawing in financial and in-kind resources and building a reputation with the Queensland Government as an emerging destination event. It ended after 10 years when the contract wound up.

I won't sugar coat it. The festival was bloody hard work. We had a small core team and we faced our fair share of political and community resistance as the festival grew. We ran it on the smell of an oily rag and stretched ourselves to exhaustion point to make it work. But we were also really proud of it, which kept us driven to improve it each year.

By it's final year, it drew an audience of over 27,000 over the 10 days. It employed local artists and gave them a platform - in the end, that was the driver and its key success point. As I recently heard out of the mouths of local artists - that has been its legacy.

So here are my top 4 considerations for planning and running an arts-led festival.

1. Know what you want to achieve

A festival always grows and evolves, but at its core, there needs to be a set of driving principles behind why it exists. Every aspect of what the festival is, needs to be assessed against those principles. Does every component of the program and they way that the team works fit with these principles? Do the partnerships and contributors fit? These principles can evolve and change with the festival but some of them should always remain. It is what your target audiences have connected with.

2. Connection to place and/or emotion

There are so many things competing for our time these days. To get people off the couch away from Netflix, you need to be offering something that evokes an emotional response or connection. What does your festival say about the place where it is being held? Or is this an event that could be held anywhere and therefore not that unique?

There are plenty of commercial touring music festivals these days that don't really have anything to do with the place they are being held. I go to these - it's not a bad thing. The connection to audiences here is more about the emotion of remembering music from big name bands that connect with Generation X and Baby Boomers. They have done their market research on who can afford to pay to attend these.

Events like the Big Red Bash take that a bit further. It must be among the most successful music festivals, yet it is so remote. They make the emotional connection with music and place. They keep the line up Australian. It is held in an iconic Australian outback landscape. They pride themselves on sustainability and keeping the place as untouched by the festival as possible. They also pride themselves on the experience of the audiences that they take into their care for 3 or 4 nights. It is unique and iconic, capitialising on the place and character of the outback. It is why people keep returning year after year.

One event that was always talked about as a good idea and has continued to be talked about ever since we made it happen, was the Red Dirt Degustation of the 2015 Crush Festival. Working with a local sugar cane farmer, a square of cane was harvested in the midst of a field, clearing a patch of rich red soil where white linen-covered tables seated over 100 people to experience jazz, circus, a locally written opera about the sugar industry and a 5-course meal celebrating local produce. It wasn't perfect, but it was certainly memorable. An iconic event that was worth all the complications, logistics and sheer hard work (nod to Ainsley Gatley and Wendy Zunker!).

Images L-R: Local Chef Dion Taylor preparing desserts; opera signer Katie Stenzel peforming an excerpt from "The Crushing" by local librettist Rod Ainsworth with a local string quartet; patrons enjoying a circus performance by Bree Le Cornu. Photography - Paul Beutel

2. Involve artists in the design and delivery of the festival

As Janis Joplin famously sang, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone".

5 years on from the last Crush Festival, local artists are still saying that they miss the developmental opportunities afforded through the program. Whilst it couldn't feasibly deliver everything for everybody with a team of 4 core people and a small budget; the formula for creating the program had local artists and local creative skill development at its heart. Artists could propose ideas for projects they were working on to be included in the program and gain the marketing advantage that the festival could bring.

For example, one of our festival team Di Wills, brought a strong youth development focus to the festival in its final years. Young people sang, played, danced and performed their own scripts to live audiences, bringing confidence and experience to the participants and pride in our local creative sector to audiences.

Even beyond what artists can contribute content wise; bringing a group of creative thinkers together to develop concepts and plan a program, outside your core team, makes it more likely to be innovative and connecting to audience desires beyond your imagination.

3. Don't do it alone

A great core team with a diverse skill set, that deeply respect and feel fulfilled by the principles behind the event, is a key foundation to success. Sharing this motivation with valued volunteers and growing a support team is fundamental. Reach out to organisations who might be willing to lend a hand. A service organise who can run the bar, or who have blue cards and can help out with kids workshops. There are willing people out there for the right purpose.

Involving local businesses with like values, who can provide financial or in-kind support provides sustainability.

This is why planning for the next festival almost starts before you have run the current one. Relationship management is a huge part of it.

4. Quality over Quantity

There is a lot of pressure to have "bums on seats" to hold events that bring in thousands. Whilst it is very rewarding for the festival team to have great audience numbers, it is important to find a balance. Intimate experiences that offer unique experiences can be just as transformational for a community and for audiences as larger events. A program with a mix of both is ideal.

If you have got to this point of the BLOG - thanks for sticking with it. To be honest it was challenging to write. My experience with the Crush Festival still brings me moments of sentimental joy and feelings of collective pride for the team I worked with. It also kicks me in the guts every now and then when people talked to me about what has been lost with its cancellation. But there have certainly been a lot of key learnings that I have tried to summarise here and take forward into my arts practice. I hope there is something in it for you.

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