How to build a world leading festival city

As the bitumen cools at night, the sprinklers whirr, the sky floods pinks and oranges over the sea every night, and our bones adjust to the body temperature sensation of the night air, we, here in Adelaide, get a sense that transformation is coming.

Adelaide is Australia’s Festival City.

It’s about this time of year that the ‘circus’ rolls into town, magic is created in parks, theatres, halls and spaces of all description, and we start the texting, phoning, googling mayhem of plotting out an itinerary of things to see.

Having lived and worked in several Festival Cities, it’s become a lifelong obsession to examine, analyse and make sense of why some Cities embrace a cultural explosion – in fact, many cultural explosions throughout the year, and why festivals feel so intense in some Cities and not others.

To date, we have plenty of great statistics on why Adelaide can claim to be the Festival City.  They include the number of tickets we sell (50% of the nation’s ticket sales – LPA – 2016 Ticketing Survey), it includes economic analysis ($80M of new money to the State annually) and it includes tourism numbers.

But measuring the intangible aspects of what the experience of being a Festival City does to our psyche and to our quality of life, and why some Cities pull it off and others don’t, is much more challenging.

One of the main reasons we hold the title of being Australia’s Festival City is because South Australian’s attend.  We turn up, we buy tickets and we see shows.  But why?

Partly it’s because we have honed our understanding of what it is to come together.  There’s no secret that as we climb Maslow’s hierarchy we move from safety to love/belonging and eventually to self-actualization.  Though attending a festival experience in a tent with a bunch of beer swilling mates doesn’t much feel like a powerful moment of deep connection, but it is, actually.  On several levels.

Our brains are wired to connect.  Our lives revolve around our ability to share information and experiences.   Having a unique experience delivered in a neat festival package; the venue, drinks, food, story, laughs, tears, makes it extraordinarily easy to find an outlet for that deeper connection.

When we are together, real-time, live, in the same room concentrating on a joint experience, further neurological connections happen and our brains, half occupied by the entertainment, find a freedom to think deeply about other subjects and connect with others on a completely different sphere (watch this TED Talk).

What is fascinating is that the art form of Opera draws to it people who spend much of their waking life thinking – using their brains.   The richness of opera with its music, visuals, drama is, for those thinkers, like a massage to the brain, a gorgeous rest and a tantalising time to have clear thoughts.

Farin Foster, in her articled titled ‘Being Human Amongst Others’ examines the value of shared festival experiences. She writes …

“Festivals drag us together in the same direction, thrown into the air through the medium of common understanding, we are at the mercy of those who know how to direct our landing.” 

Festivals create a series of these transcendent moments, but never seek to use them for a particular aim. Instead of being manufactured, the moments are organic – their effect is specific to a time, place and space. Most of them might not achieve anything except a warm feeling glowing in the middle of a crowd of strangers, but some of them are much more – they are the start of something. They are the start of connection, and a start of an evolved identity.

At their best moments, Festivals remind us of what we often forget – that we are human, and that our future is communal”

In Adelaide we cherish the memory of our forebears and yet live in the present ready and willing to accept new ideas, new reflections and are open to experience what it is to be human.

Some Festival Cities have amazing infrastructure.  Here in Adelaide we have an extraordinary asset that gives us a unique edge that has taken decades to build.  It’s us.  It is you, me, our critical mass, that makes Adelaide a world leading festival city.


Christie Anthoney

CEO Festivals Adelaide

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