With the Adelaide Festival Centre celebrating its 40-year anniversary this year, inaugural General Manager and five-time Adelaide Festival Artistic Director Anthony Steel says the ruby anniversary marks a time to spearhead a bold Adelaide artistic vision.
In a nice synergy, the Festival Centre’s ruby anniversary year calls to mind one of the centre’s first trustees, the inimitable Ruby Litchfield. She personified the spirit of the Dunstan years with excitement, enthusiasm and risk-taking – that bugbear of the contemporary corporate world, a slightly rash headiness brought about by the apparently limitless possibilities that we were all challenged to seek out and fulfill. It was gutsy stuff; the decision to build the first capital city arts centre in the country was itself audacious, yet it had bipartisan political support. There was much less emphasis on the sort of risk management that is demanded of arts bodies now, in these lily-livered days of the ‘economisation of culture’, to coin a phrase of Donald Horne’s. This obsession with the bottom line can stifle creativity. In such a climate, where the ‘products’ of the ‘arts industry’ are expected to play safe and appeal to the largest possible number of voters, the ability to take risks, without which the arts become muffled and largely irrelevant, is severely limited.
In the 1970s there was probably a certain naiveté in our programming of the centre, but I think we understood two vital principles: that we had a duty to attempt to appeal to a very broad cross-section of the South Australian community (though certainly not to all of the people all of the time – the lowest common denominator policy) but that we should always aim for the highest possible standards in whatever we undertook. After several subsequent decades in which the emphasis was either on the production of musicals, often highly successful ones, or – when that ambition was overreached and financial disaster struck – on the drastic curtailment of any activity at all and the resultant depressing succession of dark nights, the centre is firmly back in business. The arrival of Douglas Gautier to run the place, with an unapologetic policy of restoring programming to its preeminent position in the scheme of things, has thereby also restored the centre to its rightful position of playing a pivotal role in the arts in South Australia. Both practically and emotionally, Gautier and his trust were greatly helped by the decision of the Rann Government to forgive the debt with which the centre had been saddled since it opened, for its construction was paid for with government loans, a pragmatic decision at the time. The debt was a combination of the building debt and some bad business decisions relating to musicals.
What next? Adelaide needs a bold vision again. We yearn for the next Don Dunstan to stand up. We look forward to celebrating the Festival Centre’s significant birthday and rejoicing in the return of its soul. But what about its body? Buildings, just like people, deteriorate with age and the centre’s infrastructure is crumbling. That problem has to be fixed, but also the opportunity of the whole grand riverbank development plan must be seized not only to improve but also to add to the facilities that the centre offers.
There seems at last to be a slight lessening of officialdom’s embarrassing habit of calling Adelaide ‘the cultural capital of Australia’, a claim at least 30 years out of date. Even in the basic matter of arts real estate we have long been overtaken by every single other mainland capital. The Festival Centre theatres are intrinsically sound; they were very well designed and there is no reason why they can’t continue to function usefully for the next 40 years. But there is an overall dearth of reasonably serviceable theatres in the city, so that if this year’s birthday celebration results in no more than the proposed major renovation of Her Majesty’s, which reaches its centenary in 2013, it will have been worth it.
A new hall for all kinds of music is desperately needed, designed in the first instance to suit the requirements of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the only principal orchestra in any state capital without a home of its own. Such a hall would meet all kinds of other music needs as well, not least as a centre for learning about music, and would most sensibly be sited on Festival Centre land and managed by the trust. The riverbank development looks set to be a public-private partnership so here is a perfect opportunity for a dynamic and far-sighted collaboration. Such schemes are to be found all over the world – why not here?
Adelaide is about to get a spanking new hospital, not to mention a state of the art sports field, both no doubt popular projects with large sections of the community. Let us not forget though, if we are talking about satisfying the voters, that more people go to the Festival Centre than to the footy and the cricket combined and go there nearly every day of the year to boot.
When David Malouf was asked by a reporter a typical question about a state’s budgetary priorities – “do you want hospitals or opera?” - he replied, “I want both”. Amen to that.
Anthony Steel is an arts consultant and past Festival Director