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<p>Courtesy Sydney Festival</p>

Courtesy Sydney Festival

Rogue's Gallery, a concert bringing the lores and fables of the high sea to life, at the Sydney Festival, January 2010

The Arts Festival Merry-Go-Round

Sydney Festival director Lieven Bertels ponders the challenges of creating a relevant, ticket-selling arts line-up when everyone’s got a show they want to flog — and your fellow festival ringmasters are both friend and foe.

Every January, the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) holds a three-day congress — a sort of pop-up shopping mall for highbrow programmers, producers, festival directors and cultural leaders. Founded in 1948, ISPA is the oldest and most established of the international performing arts markets, and its annual New York congress these days brings together some 400 delegates from more than 50 countries. Delegates schmooze, talk up the importance of diversity in global culture and then fly home with red wine hangovers and remarkably similar programming ideas to sell to their respective domestic audiences.

Something For Everyone?

In four years, ISPA membership has increased by 40 per cent — and it’s but one of a rapidly expanding web of such markets, each catering to an exploding worldwide demand for arts festival programming content. There are now at least as many annual international arts markets as months in the year.

So, with the global arts community increasingly fishing from the same creative well, how does a director curate a unique program?

A good person to ask is Lieven Bertels, who was artistic coordinator for Holland Festival in Amsterdam from 2004-2011. For the past year, Bertels has been putting together his inaugural Sydney Festival program, which was released publicly on October 23. The festival has grown enormously over its 36 years; more than 650,000 people — that's almost 15 per cent of Sydney’s population — attended a festival event in 2011. From January 5 to 27, it will take over 30 venues across Sydney, presenting more than 750 artists. Bertels is also on ISPA’s board of directors.

“The big international arts markets are not specifically places I want to go and look for program [items],” says Bertels. “Most things that get presented to you there are so readily packaged… For me those gatherings are really more about meeting artists and agents and colleagues in the field to have a broader discussion about what we do.”

<p>Scott Barbour/Getty Images</p>

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Spanish aerialists Grupo Puja! perform during the opening of the Melbourne Festival, October 2010

Australia has a festival culture. While New York has lots of permanent venues around the city where discrete, independent productions are staged throughout the year, Sydney has just 73 theatres and 75 ‘nightclubs and dancehalls’ (compared with 420 and 584 respectively in New York). So, lacking performing art space, Australian cities put on lots of festivals and celebrations, often in temporary venues in public spaces. Australia’s performing arts community hosts 48 major arts festivals, and is in festival mode for some 85 per cent of each calendar year.

The challenge then is to avoid a more centralised, homogenised, less diverse cultural diet.

“It’s a particularly funny situation here in Australia with that alignment of various festivals and how the calendars work,” says Bertels. A year into his role at the Sydney Festival, Bertels notes that the unusual environment leads to delicate relationships among Australia’s festival directors — every major city has a festival to make its own.

“We do meet quite regularly with all the festival directors,” he says. “We actually pitch works to one another that we want to co-produce, and we get some funding to do that from the federal government, which is a very successful program to stimulate new Australian work.” The funding has seen major Australian co-productions — Assembly, Never Did Me Any Harm, The House of Dreaming and Doku Rai, to name a few — tour multiple city festivals in the past few years.

<p>Courtesy Sydney Festival</p>

Courtesy Sydney Festival

Dancers take to the St Mary's Cathedral forecourt for Festival First Night at the Sydney Festival, January 2012

“But, informally, those meetings are more careful,” Bertels says of the limits of sharing programming ideas with his fellow Australian arts directors. “Because you don’t want to show all your cards and you want to get a feel for what the other person is perhaps planning and doing.

“So it’s a funny kind of poker game.”

With a selection of rather mainstream, pre-packaged art on offer at the world’s international performing arts markets, along with often-shared programming headlines, works co-commissioned by festival directors and a neat calendar alignment allowing acts to tour the “festival circuit” — what does Sydney need for a program that is unique to Sydney (and likewise for other cities around the world)?

“If it’s a good festival it reflects its local fabric and its local feel and I think Sydney Festival actually scores very high on that,” Bertels says. He is conscious of honouring Sydney Festival’s history, of upholding the legacies left by past directors and building towards the festival’s 40th anniversary in 2017. “It really brings something for Sydneysiders, but increasingly it’s also a reason to be in Sydney for other people.”

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