Celebrated Australian composer Iain Grandage has been named as the new artistic director of the Perth Festival from 2020, taking the reins at a tumultuous time for WA’s highest-profile arts festival as it faces economic constraint and increased competition from the Fringe festival.
Grandage will take over from current artistic director Wendy Martin, whose four-year tenure finishes after next year’s festival in February.
“The festival’s been deep in my consciousness since when I was a student here at UWA, and it was my avenue to the world in the arts,” he said.
“So I would love to create that avenue for many other local Perth artists, not only by commissioning works here, but also by bringing the best of the world here to Perth, as has been the long and treasured history of the festival.
“There’s a particular way of viewing the world that comes from growing up here … and I think there’s a real sense of relationship between our inside worlds and the outer world of the natural environment.”
A classical music composer and conductor, Grandage’s artistic repertoire is wide-ranging.
He has collected awards for his musical scores for a number of renowned stage productions including Cloudstreet, The Secret River and The Rabbits, and his opera based on Tim Winton’s novel The Riders was critically acclaimed.
He’s also collaborated with many Indigenous artists, including Jimmy Chi on Corrugation Road and the Black Arm Band, and aims to have a high quota of Indigenous artists in his festivals.
“I want to make the Indigenous component core and central for the festival, because that to me is the quintessence of Australian culture,” he said.
Festival forced to cut back as revenues drop
The festival has faced tight fiscal constraints in recent years, with the government last year announcing a funding cut of several hundred thousand dollars over three years, and sponsorship revenue also down.
This year’s program was a leaner offering than in previous years, with cuts to the children’s program and regional events.
The festival has also had to fight for patronage from the bigger and brasher Fringe World, which has become the third-biggest fringe event in the world with a box office totalling more than $10 million, compared with $3.8 million for the Perth Festival.
But Grandage rejected criticism that the Perth Festival was elitist and out of touch, and said the Fringe was an ally in bringing people to the arts.
“Our job at the festival is to occupy a space that’s not occupied by the Fringe, to create things either of scale or inside large theatre spaces that the Fringe otherwise can’t do,” he said.
“As the preeminent arts organisation in the city, it’s our job to be accessible to many people.
“I’m very Catholic in my choices, so while I’ve been brought up inside the classical music sphere, actually my love of all sorts of music is there and I like art that not only has deep intellect but also has immense heart and connects with many more people.
“I’m not interested at all in pretentiousness, I’m not interested in exclusivity.”
Big events and famous faces
For many, the large-scale marionette performances of The Giants that saw hundreds of thousands of people flock to Perth’s CBD in 2015 was the pinnacle of the festival in recent years.
The Giants attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the festival. (ABC News: Samia O’Keefe)
Grandage is unabashed in his ambition to achieve a comparable large-scale event that brings the city together.
“I have an aspiration to have something of the scale of The Giants but make it a homegrown thing, and there’s a series of conversations that I’m already having around just such a possibility,” he said.
Grandage is keen to roll up his sleeves and get the ball rolling, and is hoping close friend and fellow West Australian Tim Minchin will play a role.
“He’ll be an important part of the group of people around me across these four years … he’s one of a series of artists I’m deeply involved with in creating a festival for everyone,” Grandage said.
“The joy of having wanted to do this job for many decades is that there’s been plenty of time for blue sky dreaming and a lot of time for me to be thinking of possibilities.
“In much the same way as writing a piece of music, the festival is about creating a series of strands and sewing them together and creating a story.
“There’s a lovely team around me to help me do that, so I don’t find it daunting, I find it exciting.”