Brisbane Festival emerged from the Warana Festival, which had been running since 1961.
Warana’s theme was ‘entertainment for the people, by the people’, and included a drama festival and eisteddfod, a writers' week, a George Street Colonial Fair, a Miss Warana Pageant and various religious, sporting and other outdoors activities.
It was a much loved festival, but the city had aspirations for something more sophisticated after the 1988 Expo, and by the mid-1990s it was clear that the city needed a new approach. In 1996, the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council created Brisbane Festival as a biennial arts festival with an aim ‘to foster the arts’.
At around the same time, in 1998, Riverfestival was created by Brisbane City Council as an annual, 10-day event held each September. It was a ‘river-based celebration combined with community engagement’. It had a broad cultural focus incorporating art, environmental science and sport underpinned by a strong sustainability message. It utilised many of the city's outdoor public spaces close to the river, and included signature events such as the International Riversymposium as part of a key goal to raise environmental awareness, and Riverfire, a popular fireworks display.
In 2009, Brisbane Festival and RiverFestival were combined through a Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council initiative into one large annual international arts festival. The iconic Riverfire now marks the final day of Brisbane Festival.
Brisbane Festival operates under the direction of the Board of Major Brisbane Festivals Pty Ltd.
Brisbane Festival is the youngest major annual Australian arts festival by at least a decade. In that time, Brisbane Festival has established itself as a world class festival and Brisbane’s biggest cultural event.
Artistic Directors have been Tony Gould (1996-2004), Lyndon Terracini (2006-2009), Noel Staunton (2010 -2014) and David Berthold (2015 to 2019). Louise Bezzina is the Artistic Director for the festivals from 2020 to 2023.