5 things I’ve learned as a festival artistic director

Iain Grandage is stepping down as Perth Festival's Artistic Director this year. This is what he'll take away with him.
Iain Grandage. Smiling man with fair hair, glasses and beard, in white shirt and blue jacket, outside leaning against a brick wall, smiling at camera.

This month Iain Grandage will wrap up his fifth and final Perth Festival as Artistic Director. The tenure is usually a four-year cycle, but the advent of COVID in 2020 was such a disruptor, his contract was extended to give him five bites of the cherry.

Following this Festival he’ll return to his myriad other occupations and preoccupations, beginning with composing his next film score.

One of the most notable inclusions in his first Festival in 2020 was the hugely ambitious and award-winning project Highway to Hell, in which a convoy of music stages trundled down 10 kilometres of Canning Highway and over 144,000 people were involved in day-long celebrations commemorating 40 years since the death and burial of local legend and AC/DC front man Bon Scott.

It was a genuine one-off, never again, sort of occasion and a highlight of his time as Artistic Director.

Here he shares with ArtsHub five learnings he’ll take away with him from his time holding the reins and why a project like Highway to Hell doesn’t happen too often.

1. Celebrate the wins

Celebrate what you have achieved, what you’ve managed to bring into the public sphere. And don’t grieve all the things that you didn’t manage to bring to fruition, because they are always, by their very nature, unknown to the public. And so you can lean into what is seen, not what might have been.

2. Location, location, location

Festivals now more than ever are celebrations of the place where they happen. It was always an ambition to do that here and because, and only because, of the generosity of the Noongar community. The way they grounded us, kept us safe and gave us a series of stories that we could celebrate – they gave this cycle, a very strong sense of place. They let artists from anywhere and everywhere also feel safe.

3. Get in, get it done and get out

Short cycles for short tenures, are excellent for festivals. I’d consider a three- or four-year cycle is good. That’s enough time to do what you want to do. And then you should get out because the world changes. The world changes fast…

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4. Find that one thing

Lindy Hume was my predecessor, who ran this festival and was Artistic Director from 2004 to 2007. When I was pondering whether to go for it, I rang her and she said, ‘Just choose one thing. Just choose one thing, because that’s all you’re going to get up. You’re going to try and do a lot of things. And then, in the end, you’ll only get that one thing that you really want to do up. And I thought, ‘Nooo!, I’ll get to do lots.’

That was my 2020 festival. And I was thinking, ‘Look how far we can go.’ There’s all that stuff! Now, interestingly, there were a few, probably more than a few, things I [thought we could do]. Because COVID allowed us to fall in love with the place more. It allowed us to slow down, it allowed us to continue. And this is where I need to acknowledge that the experience was vastly different around the country. But here in Western Australia, we couldn’t get out. But we could get together. And make art together.

And that let us tell more stories of this place with the people of this place. And fall in love a bit more. And so, from that point of view, that’s been a great gift, that was also a great tragedy elsewhere in the world.

In the context of Lindy’s comment, I think there were two things. One is that relationship and culture, which I touched on, that is a long journey. But in terms of a short single thing, that was Highway to Hell. Now we wouldn’t be able to do that, because I know too much.

Man on stage in a black shirt, trousers and waistcoat, speaking to microphone with brown red bush behind him. Iain Grandage.
Iain Grandage at Perth Festival launch 2023. Photo: Rift Photography.

So I was just trying to do the big thing, which was Highway to Hell – a massive event – but inside a festival. And what happened after that was I became very aware, especially because of COVID, of what a stress that was – the stress that it put the team under. And, once you know that, and if you are trying to be a compassionate leader, then you can’t actually ask that of an organisation or a community. It’s the nature of the fire that drives you into it, that can get tempered through understanding of what you’re actually asking, so you don’t get to ask it often. Yes, it’s fine to ask it, but you just don’t get to ask it often.

I think the request then becomes unreasonable. You’re saying, ‘Here we go again.’ And everyone else is like ‘nah’ . I think that’s a nice way of putting that…

5. What goes around comes around

Everything is circular. In the themes of the festival, I started with fire and we’ve done a river, out to the ocean and up into the stars. These were the circles of expansion I aimed to do. But COVID interfered with that. And then being given an extra year meant I had to refocus and imagine what it would be. And so that fifth one became a single star – the sun – and that sun is the fire that travels across the sky.

So that’s one form of the circle. But the second circuit is the fact that the person who taught me the job was Anna Reece, who was the Head of Programming, when I came into the job. She taught me balance programs. She taught me how to make sure that many voices are heard inside it and how to distil what was quite a disparate vision down into something that was very clear. And now she takes that over; I just love that part of the succession.

And a bonus…

Artists are the middle of everything that we do. What’s beautiful is this role is about holding the space for the collectors of dreams to dream bigger – be that convincing funders or philanthropists or co-presenters or, in fact, the artists themselves, convincing them that they are not only capable but needed in this world more than ever.

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.