The time is almost nigh for the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival. The man at the helm of this two-year festival appointment has previously led the arts festivals held in Melbourne’s sibling cities, or rivals depending on where you are from, with much acclaim. Before the international acts take to the stage to enlighten our audiences, Anna Lozynski interviewed festival director, Brett Sheehy about his role and the 2009 program.

Brett SheehyYou have previously enjoyed senior positions with both the Adelaide and Sydney Festivals. What is distinct about Melbourne’s art scene compared to its counterparts?
This is the first city in which I’ve lived where the vast majority of the women and men ‘in the street’, even the non-arts-going public, proudly declare that arts and culture are a vital part of the fabric of their city. A Premier of another State once said to me that every dollar they spent on the arts in their State was a vote lost, and in Victoria every dollar spent on the arts is a vote won. I suspect that’s a little simplistic, but it does indicate something about the history of culture within this State. Having Melbournians on-side from scratch, in such an overt way, adds a terrific layer of goodwill and support on which to build a festival’s achievements.

Then, there is Melbourne’s topography. Any successful festival takes into account the geography of its city and how that is best exploited to the greatest benefit for the art and the audience. Being part of the physical landscape of the city is critical. Also, one cannot ignore the history of the city’s festival. While one automatically brings a new vision to a city’s festival, you also need to identify areas which might be hungry for positive change, renewal and updating.

When it comes to art and culture, what are you most passionate about?
The great gift of working in international arts festivals is the ability to involve oneself in, and build your knowledge of, every single artform. So I don’t really preference any artform over another. But within art, I loathe what I call “Prozac-ed art”, where an eradication of the spikes and troughs of art’s rapture and horror leads to anaesthetized, bourgeois, comfortable art. I look for art which questions rather than answers; and I am deeply suspicious of art whose goal is simplistic social engineering. To me, the best art is complex, ambiguous, even confusing.

I look to artists who make waves rather than ride them. I judge work by its originality and its ability to explore the issues, politics, social conditions and human concerns pertinent to the complexity of this 21st Century world, and which embraces new technologies.

Other than your vast experience and accolades, such as being heralded as one of the best artistic directors in recent years, what other qualities do you bring to your current role?
I aim to act as a rigorous producer who is prepared to take huge, albeit calculated risks (debuting so many artists and companies Australians had never before seen, throughout my career, has always been incredibly risky). I have also never run up a crippling deficit at one of my organizations. Nor have I disenfranchised my audience base or my corporate partners. Complaining or being a martyr is not my style. Each part of me is committed to enabling artists to be their best and to succeed. I seek to affirm in those artists that they have the right to achieve greatness in their work (while some of my peers focus only on the passage to failure). Being honest, upfront, direct and hopelessly optimistic also ring true.

How has your approach to the role of artistic director changed over the years?
Each day brings new learning. Most importantly, I have learned to ensure that I, too, am challenged in the job, and to present work which engages, confronts and inspires me, as well as my audience. This has prevented my ever slipping into a ‘box-ticking’ mode, which is so tempting and easy in this role.

What are your ‘top picks’ for this year’s festival?
Every festival director will tell you they don’t have favourites because if we have done our job, we are passionate about every project. However, in 10 years’ time the Australian public will remember experiencing the collision between Peter Greenaway’s 21st Century view of da Vinci’s LAST SUPPER and the original artwork on the chapel wall in Milan (which we are re-creating here in its entirety, right down to the last laser-measured, half-millimetre flake of paint). They will be thrilled to have seen, for the first time, the work of one of the most influential theatre and dance makers so far this century in Sasha Waltz. They will recall a themed, comprehensive, city-wide visual arts program; and remember this entire decade for its clash of cultures highlighted by terrorism explored intelligently in the play PORNOGRAPHY. Also, I hope they will remember exhausting themselves on the dance floor of Beck’s Rumpus Room until 3am each morning!
{xtypo_quote_right}I look to artists who make waves rather than ride them{/xtypo_quote_right}
In terms of Melbourne’s performance venues, which space strikes a chord with you?
The whole Southbank cultural development plan is just incredible, becoming one of the great festival precincts of the world. With all the new venues and spaces of the past decade, from Federation Square to the new Recital Centre, Melbourne Theatre Company’s new theatres, the wonderful Malthouse, ACCA and others, as well as the major refurbishment of the Arts Centre, it means that within less than one square kilometre, Melbourne will have between 45 and 55 professional performance and exhibition spaces, all within walking distance. It’s a dream come true for a festival director!

What challenges have you faced in shaping the 2009 program?
The challenge of presenting so many Australian debuts as well as significantly growing the festival in terms of art forms, attendances, revenues and so on.

It’s high-flying acrobatics without a safety net to put before Australian audiences artists of whom they’ve never heard, and works which have never been seen here: Sasha Waltz, Hofesh Shechter, Simon Stephens, Erna Omarsdottir, Pascal Dusapin, Sebastian Nubling, Brenton Broadstock, Vanessa van Durme, Mark O’Rowe, Cameron Carpenter, Brain Failure, Ramallah Underground, Melt Banana, Peeping Tom Collective, and Matt Stokes. These are a few of the artists forming the core of this year’s program and they are certainly not household names, especially within the Australian arts community. That’s the terror, but also the thrill of the job. Introducing so much new talent to Australia is a great privilege.

Which one lesson have you learned during the lead up to this year’s festival that has stayed with you?
To ignore the clichés and treat every city and its citizens afresh. The endless, parochial refrains of “Melbourne is this”, “Sydney is that”, “Adelaide is that”, seem mired in some decades’ old notion of identity politics. I have found all the clichés untrue, the good and the bad, and remain heartened that people are people the world over, and great artistic visions will find their voices and their audiences no matter what.

Finally, tell us one thing that most people are surprised to learn about you.
Possibly that I don’t talk in empty, abstract, obfuscating art-speak. Being the facilitator and bridge between the art and the audience, clarity is my mantra.

The Melbourne International Arts Festival runs from Oct 9 - 24, 2009. Full program details»

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