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Australia Council Forum – Dr Wendy Were, Sydney Writers’ Festival

Speeches and Opinions
Oct 31, 2007

As the artistic director and chief executive of Sydney Writers’ Festival, Australia’s premier annual literary festival, I am speaking from the position of two key artistic areas – literature and festivals –both of which often face different and distinct challenges.

The 2007 Sydney Writers’ Festival took place a few weeks ago. It attracted audiences of more than 85,000 in over 330 events that took place all over the CBD, in Sydney’s west and in a number of regional centres. This year, over 450 writers, journalists, commentators, politicians and media identities were involved over the weeklong Festival.

The relevancy of the Arts has been a point of discussion by some of the previous panellists, but the relevance of SWF and writers’ festivals generally to me is obvious and indisputable. It’s evident from the growing audience base that diversifies and increases each year and it’s still very obvious that we’re not close to satisfying audience demand.

SWF’s major problem, such as it is, is success. Audience attendances jump by the tens of thousands each year, with an increase of 20,000 at the last festival. People queue for hours to get into our free program at the Wharf and we use professional security and overflow broadcasts to cope with the demand. The Festival engages the community at an extraordinary level and SWF’s crowds are the stuff of legend. We also have a significant media profile and a multi-million dollar publicity campaign.

This year’s SWF opening address was presented by Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan on the topic of The Power of Literature: the news that stays news. The address is one of the most eloquent reminders I’ve had in recent years of the relevance of literature in the daily lives of so many people. The overwhelming audience reception to the address has been gratifying – weeks later, I am still receiving a deluge of feedback from the public that testifies to the way that O’Hagan’s words and the Festival program generally have enriched and inspired a wide community. The transcript and audio is now available on the SWF website and people continue to share it with their friends, peers and loved ones. It’s a remarkable gift and it’s travelling widely.

SWF has just celebrated its tenth anniversary and its success for such a young festival is truly impressive. We’re now one of the biggest annual writers’ festivals in the world; I believe our current ranking is third, behind the Hay and Edinburgh Festivals. Over the ten years that the Festival has grown from strength to strength, its support base has evolved in line with its expansion and despite my position as artistic director, I’ve chosen to focus tonight not on the artistic program, but rather on business development.

I would argue that SWF’s rapid ascension to one of the world’s leading literary events is, in a large part, due to the vision of the core funding bodies of the City of Sydney and ArtsNSW. Both bodies have consistently provided secure and adequate funding to enable a largely free program, which in turn has significantly supported the Festival’s growth and made it possible to reach a point where it is an attractive investment for commercial supporters.

For the first five years, the Festival relied almost entirely on government funding and a small box office income from selected ticketed events, along with some minor sponsorships, many of which related to in kind support.

In the last five years, commercial support has played an increasingly important role in the Festival’s growth. SWF first actively sought corporate support in 2003 and since then has acquired a number of blue chip sponsors, including Telstra, NRMA, Macquarie Bank and Barclays Capital, all of whom have been ongoing in their support.

But it’s proven difficult for an event such as a week-long Festival, no matter how successful, to capture and retain significant commercial sponsorship. The short and intense period of activity means that there’s only one bite at the cherry, so to speak, and supporters of the arts are often more attracted to the annual programs of opera, theatre and dance, where corporate hospitality and branding opportunities exist year round rather than for just one week. As a result, while we are grateful to our commercial supporters, the level they offer SWF is relatively small and the contracts are usually negotiated on an annual basis, so it is a labour intensive process.

To retain our corporate supporters, we place a great emphasis on sponsor servicing and work to produce creative partnerships that link with the key goals of the partnering organisations. Like any not for profit arts organisation, the Festival operates on a bare minimum of resources. I have a team of 4 permanent staff and each year we rely on thousands of volunteer hours to make the event a reality. A staff member now works almost entirely in the area of business development, supporting me in fundraising. This is critical to ensure the Festival’s growth and survival, as the public support we receive simply cannot keep up with the expansion of the event. The support we receive from the Australia Council has dropped by 50% over the last three years, and now equates to less than 4% of our annual budget. I believe this is largely to do with the competition for funding from other existing and emerging writers festivals.

SWF’s public funding equates to approximately one third of our annual budget, with the remainder drawn from commercial, cultural and private support, and box office income. The Festival still provides the majority of its events free to the public. As Chief Executive, one of the first things I did when I took up the position a year ago was to implement a strategy for private donors. The trend, at least as we are experiencing it, is that commercial sponsors are no longer as interested in supporting an important cultural event, but are increasingly driven by product sales and defined outcomes that sometimes sit uncomfortably with the goals of a Festival.

Dealing in the area of philanthropy and private giving enables SWF the opportunity to work with people who are genuinely committed to the important cultural work that the Festival achieves. The assistance of Louise Walsh and Artsupport has been a critical turning point in the Festival’s fundraising history. In our first year of targeting this income source, we have more than doubled the level of private support from 2006, and this equated to about 7% of our annual budget. The proactive support from Artsupport has been extremely valuable and is enabling a source of income that in future years could exceed grant income.

On the topic of future directions for how things are done in the arts sector, one of the things I would like to see is a cohesive strategic vision that is more clearly articulated. In the arena of literature, it seems to me that often the aims and criteria for support seem to be conflicting. I noted the stated preference in the last feedback document from the funding round in which SWF applied, for festivals that provide opportunities for literary writers as opposed to “celebrities and non-literary authors” and for festivals that place a greater focus on attracting younger audiences and including young and emerging writers, and to take more risks than relying on old formulas. I think the idea of “literary” is an oblique one and I also think that new literary forms are increasingly important and also tie into the relevancy of literature for youth audiences.

The opportunities afforded by SWF to Australian writers are significant and well worth supporting. Our international reputation is such that inclusion in the program provides a powerful international platform for local writing. Our events are regularly scouted by international publishers and agents. Our website receives millions of hits after the program is released and we attract significant out of state and international attendance.

Many of the outcomes of writers’ festivals are tangible and can be measured in KPIs and targets, but far more outcomes are intangible and resonate long after the sessions are over, in the minds of those who attended, but also in the continuing public and private debates. The outcomes for the community are also significant. In the weeks leading up to the Festival and after it is over, the media presence of the debates and discussions raised by the program is vast and energised. I often describe a writers’ festival as a virtual Town Hall – a space where the community is invited to actively participate in the issues that are affecting them. Over a dinner table some months ago, a writer friend described the experience of attending a writers festival as like “going to church”. The succour and inspiration that people take away from the Festival, and from the arts in general, cannot be underestimated. The value of a city’s writers’ festival to the cultural and political life is immeasurable and for Sydney, it is powerful testimony to the vibrant intellectual life of its community.