Bigger isn't always better: how bravery and bold thinking saved a festival

1 Sep

Bigger isn't always better: how bravery and bold thinking saved a festival

Freshly appointed the new Brisbane Festival Board Chair, Alison Smith’s 2019 strategy was clear: “bigger and better”.

Working with incoming Artistic Director Louise Bezzina and CEO Charlie Cush, Smith anticipated overseeing a Festival delivered on a scale not experienced before. 

Then COVID hit and the smart and savvy operator pivoted with panache, refocusing her strategic direction to guide Bezzina’s new “bolder and brighter” vision. 

Flexing the tenacity, resilience, optimism and creative thinking that helped steer Brisbane Festival 2020 through the uncharted post-COVID waters, Smith reflects on the lessons learnt, risks taken and impact made ahead of chairing her second Festival in September. 

Q. What attracted you to the role of Brisbane Festival Board Chair? 

A. I am delighted to be part of the team behind Brisbane’s most anticipated month of the year! Brisbane Festival is an important asset to our city that brings joy to our community and helps us celebrate our unique culture in bright and bold moments. It is an honour to be on the board and work with the management team throughout the year to deliver this annual event.

Q. What was your biggest motivator when taking on the role in 2019, and how has this shifted since then? 

A. In 2019 my approach was how we could be bigger and better. In 2021 it remains the same but after COVID hit, my thinking is influenced more by having a constant focus on opportunities, possibilities and finding ways to proceed that are safe for performers and the community. A really big part of this to me is how we can maximise employment for local artists who are doing it tough during lockdowns and restrictions on venues. 

Q. What is the most valuable or important thing you’ve learnt about the Brisbane arts scene after more than a year in the role? 

A. That our arts community is a thriving and resilient one that refuses to let COVID shut it down. Similarly, the past 18 months have demonstrated how important the arts scene is to our community; people have missed the connection and the celebration that music, art, culture and performance provides. 

Q. The easiest and hardest parts of your job are…? 

A. The easiest part is how much fun it is to work with Louise Bezzina, Charlie Cush and the Festival’s management team. They are so passionate about their work, they are committed to delivering the state’s biggest annual festival and ensuring it connects with the community and they are just so good at what they do. We have some fabulous people on the board, who come from all different perspectives and who share the same passion and commitment to the Festival. They ask the important questions to ensure the management team is always thinking ahead. The hardest parts are dealing with COVID-related impacts – but we have a great working relationship with the Chief Health Officer and her team at Queensland Health who help us manage through solutions. We also have a great partnership with our shareholders, the Queensland Government and the Brisbane City Council. The Festival has wonderful personal support in particular from the Arts Minister Leeanne Enoch and Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner.  

Q. After successfully staging Brisbane Festival in 2020, despite a cacophony of challenges and limitations, what is your focus and attitude heading toward the 2021 Festival? 

A. Onwards and upwards! We’ve shown we can be brave and find ways to deliver rather than cancel. The 2021 Brisbane Festival has an amazing program and Sunsuper Riverfire will once again light up our skies on the last Saturday night in September.  

Q. What stands out as some of the biggest or most unusual challenges to last year’s Festival and how were they were overcome? 

A. The way Louise found a way to deliver Street Serenades in 2020 was just so inspiring. It was that whole thought process of, “Well, if people can’t gather en masse and come to performances, how can we take the performances to them in their homes and communities?” It was genius. It also helped to take Brisbane Festival to new audiences and build a new supporter base. 

Q. What is the most important lesson learnt last year and how is it being put into practice this year? 

A. Contingency planning and having multiple backup plans. COVID means it’s not good enough to just have a Plan B; we now need to do much more heavy lifting to assess risks and various potential scenarios, meaning we have Plan C, Plan D, Plan E, etc. 

Q. In terms of its international reputation, how does Brisbane Festival continue to stack-up against other major festivals around the world?

A. Brisbane Festival deserves international recognition for its courage. Most other major festivals around the world did not proceed in 2020. Instead, Brisbane Festival demonstrated its agility and sheer determination to bring fun to people in a safe and imaginative way when they needed it the most. That really speaks to the DNA of Brisbane’s people, our lifestyle and our culture. What a great international brand right there! 

Q. As Festival Board Chair, what are your own criteria or metrics for determining the success of the Festival? 

A. We have key performance objectives of course, but to me the most important factors are: Did we do it well? Safely? Did we leave people saying, “If only Brisbane was like this every night of the year?”  

Q. Go on, play favourites – what shows and events at Brisbane Festival 2021 are you most looking forward to experiencing? 

A. There are so many to choose from! I have cleared my calendar to attend as much of the Festival as possible in September, and I’m planning to go to Jumoo, Boy Swallows Universe, Let’s Be Friends Furever, Skyfall, DEMOLITION, Sunsuper Riverfire, plus some of the Street Serenades and of course, getting some time to admire our beautiful river city aboard Brisbane’s Art Boat

Q. What is your inside advice on helping audiences get the most out of their Brisbane Festival experience in 2021? 

A. The main Festival hub will be at South Bank, where the BOQ Festival Garden will be the heart of the action. I’d start out there to experience some of the free activities. The website is the easiest way to check out the free stuff and to look for what shows you may want to buy tickets to. The best inside advice is to reserve as many nights in September as possible to experience as much of our city’s Festival as you can!

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Brisbane Festival expresses deep respect to and acknowledges the First People of this Country.