Madeleine Dore | ArtsHub | Friday 19 February 2016

To produce exceptional art, artists need exceptions from the rules of general society, a leading artistic director told the ArtsHub Conference.

PIAF’s 2015 headliner The Giants teaches us how to be exceptional. Image:

As an artistic director, Jonathan Holloway has a knack for uniting cities. In his first year at Perth International Arts Festival, thousands danced under feathers at Place des Anges and in his final, gazed up as Royal de Luxe’s Giants as they took over the city.

Such moments stir passion, excitement and memories. Holloway recounts a woman telling him at Place des Anges, ‘It was like the war had ended all over again.’

‘That’s the impact of art – it can be moving and uplifting and beautiful. Those are the things we do every day,’ the new Artistic Director of Melbourne Festival told last week’s ArtsHub Conference.

But such grand, life-affirming moments in art often don’t make it from the drawing board to the public arena. Trying to convince local government concerned with traffic regulation, police anxious about crowd management or emergency services preparing for a potential terrorist attack that a glorious emotional moment is worth a total restructure of the rules and an artistic director has a big job ahead.

Holloway – who revealed The Giants nearly did not make it to Perth because of such difficulties – said artists need to advocate for exceptions, argue that the value the arts brings means they cannot be treated as just another planning issue.

‘If we want to be exceptional as a sector, we are going to have to demand exceptions,’ he said.

Holloway achieved change in Perth partly by tackling head on the city’s reputation for saying no and challenging authorities to make Perth a ‘yes’ city.

Creating believers

‘Everyone liked the idea of it, but not the logistics… Everyone said we are in if they are in – the police were in if the brigade was in, the city was in if the federal government was in. It became the project of a thousand not-nos,’ said Holloway.

To tackle external resistance, internal resistance has to be eradicated. ‘Start off by making sure everyone in the building is behind it otherwise people outside will lose faith.’

We need to build cultures where possibility and bravery is celebrated. ‘Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.’

Instead a team should take on an attitude of ‘whatever it takes’, said Holloway.  ‘There are two stages of an art project: it’s too soon to tell, and it’s too late to do anything about it.’

Last year Belgian festival director Frie Leysen galvanised artists at the Australian Theatre Forum with her call for artists to be less compliant and more challenging.

Read: Disturbing not ​Pleasing is Art’s Role

Similarly Holloway believes artists and, festivals in particular, need to up their ambition and expectations.

‘We need to think massive, we need to absolutely go with this, we need to come together and work out what our message is and fundamentally change where we are at this moment and we need to be a sector that says yes.’

He said the arts was facing challenges from the commercialisation of entertainment but had the potential to have extraordinary impact.

‘I do think that a lot of people have walked onto our territory, people have adopted the vocabulary and the tricks of the arts and monetised them. As a result if you want to use a venue that you don’t own it is now more expensive because the quickest fix is to get commercial organisation in to do not dissimilar things.

‘So we have a job to do in all of that. But I think we can, and I think that because everyone is here because they believe in what they do and we all believe in the arts and creativity and culture being transformational.’

The money challenge

Holloway began his career at Bridgewater Arts Centre in Somerset, which in his second year had its funding budget cut by Arts Council England. While in our current political climate we can empathise with such a kick, Holloway offered a silver lining. ‘What we realised is we could do more things we cared about and spend more time marketing instead of acquitting.’

Taking this experience into the Perth International Arts Festival as the The Giants faced a funding shortfall of $2 million, Holloway put efforts into marketing and crafted a public panic letter that journalists flocked to.

Essentially, it’s about marketing your strengths. Holloway recounted the letter: ‘Even though this project will work with every young person and child in Western Australia, even though it will have an economic impact of tens of millions of dollars, even though it will bring people into the city and will be a way of celebrating the city in a way it hasn’t been, put the city on the map and tell the Anzac story and the Noongar story and who we are as a nation – a city that says yes – in spite of all that, unless a miracle happens by next Tuesday, it’s clear we can’t go ahead.’

After the letter created a media stir, the West Australian Government stepped in to save the Anzac Commemoration show, with James Packers’ Crown Resorts Foundation also donating $1 million to the project.

Prominent success has its downside and Holloway has found that each time he pulls off an exceptional event the response from many is, ‘So what are you going to do next?’

H​e isn’t bashful in admitting that he is a ‘coward like anyone’ who fears his projects may fail or he may get caught out as an imposter at any moment.

However he does remind us of a possible antidote to fear and failure: ‘There’s that saying if you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people, and if you are smart surround yourself with people who disagree with you.’

‘I surround myself with people who are braver than I am. When I have an idea we discuss it, and when I lose all faith, or suffer from FOFU – Fear of Fucking Up – the moment that kicks in they say, no we’ll just do it, we’ll be fine!’

So what is he going to do next?

When asked what attracted him to the Melbourne Festival, Holloway has a direct answer.

‘It’s as simple as those two words really – Melbourne and Festival.

‘I love the way festivals can transform, they can surprise, they can engage and they leave you changed, enriched, empowered and skint – there is the sense that a festival can lower the barriers, so that’s one side of my decision to move to Melbourne.

‘The other side is that Melbourne has a sense of its own place and also an art scene that over-delivers and is under-resourced – it has such ambition and that’s something that can really help with the future of the festival.’

With the tumultuous political and humanitarian climate, Holloway said as a state Victoria is a place where we can affect change.

‘I feel like we may be in the one place where there are some people at a political level as well as a social and arts level saying something that can make a difference.’

But we mustn’t let labels such as ‘the world’s most liveable’ city lead to complacency.

‘The big uplifts in the arts have happened at certain moments in this city and I believe this is a moment when that can happen again because everything seems to be lining up.’

He said Victoria was well-placed for strengthening its cultural life.

‘During my first meeting with Minister Martin Foley he spent the first ten minutes telling me why the festival was important, why the arts was important and what my job was and what he required of me – the speech I normally give to a politician he gave to me and it was about the intrinsic and the instrumental, and he gets it.

IMAGE CREDIT: via Arts Hub