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Festival of Ideas begins: but what of the future?


In what might be a unique venture in South Australia’s proud festival history, the Festival of Ideas will be resurrected tonight after volunteers, institutions and businesses stepped in to fill a void left by the removal of wholesale government funding.

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The State Government decided against funding the festival after its last showing in 2013, but has come on board with targeted support through its Open State event after founder Greg Mackie and other long-time supporters of the festival formed a not-for-profit organisation to resurrect the previously biennial celebration of ideas.

Apart from the festival’s honorary executive producer, who is being paid a modest stipend, the rest of the hundreds of human hours required to mount the event have come from volunteers.

All three universities are supporting the festival in some way, including through the free offer of venues. Some companies, including Solstice Media, the publisher of InDaily, design firm Freerange Future, Statewide Super, and many others, got on board to help spread the word and provide a professional face to the public.

The removal of funding to the festival, which was founded by Mackie in 1999, and held every two years from then until 2013, came as a blow.

But he didn’t whinge, preferring to hit the phone and pavement to garner support from individuals and organisations to resurrect it in some form.

And it wasn’t hard to find widespread support for the event, which attracted 30,000 attendees to its last outing in 2013.

“It was very heartwarming that there’s genuine affection for this event,” Mackie says.

And now – beginning tonight with the opening oration by Australian media legend Phillip Adams – the event looks not so different from what was presented in 2013, with full government support.

It’s slightly shorter, and will be produced without the previous professional support, but Mackie believes audiences won’t notice the difference.

Mackie is proud of what’s been achieved, but he’s also certain that it’s not sustainable.

“It’s not about making money for myself – there’s no money to be made,” he laughs, adding: “Myself and others have pulled in all sorts of favours that aren’t replicable.  We need to re-engage a conversation with the government and nurture the dozen of so partnerships that have remained true to the course.”

And why is Mackie so passionate about this festival?

Not because it’s a “Lefty” talk fest, as some Murdoch media columnists would have it (a suggestion he’s laughed off – he appreciated the extra publicity), but because he believes it embodies something important and unique about South Australia.

“Genuinely, the people who have stepped up are doing so because they believe in the ethos that this event represents,” he says. “It says something about South Australia’s values, it speaks in some senses to the founding principles of the province of South Australia – that this is a place for free thinking, that this is a place that values dissent. The fact that the event is predominantly free to the public means that it is as egalitarian as possible.

“I want  to celebrate the fact that there’s something more to being part of the community in South Australia than simply being consumers of goods and services – that the exchange of ideas and thinking are highly energizing processes and not simply thumb-twiddling and forelock-tugging exercises in remonstrance.”

It’s a message that’s supported by the Emeritus Profession Ian Gibbins, who convenes the festival’s program development group.

He says it’s a “festival for the citizens, for the cognoscenti and bare-bones punters alike”.

Echoing the festival’s theme of “make or break”, he says: “In these times of dramatic social change, international upheaval, and uncertain futures, we are all in this together. Doing nothing is not an option.”

The question for Mackie and his supporters is this: if the festival is a success this year, why then would the government dip into its scarce funds to provide wholesale support once more?

“We’ve shown that we can do an event over two days and three evenings with 70 speakers and 48 events – only three of which are ticketed,” Mackie says.

“However the human capital investment that has gone into the most rudimentary of functions to make this happen is not a sustainable to deliver this event into the future.”

However, he’s not giving up on making the Festival of Ideas a regular feature of the local events calendar.

Indeed, he believes its sustainability is linked to it becoming an annual event, alongside well-supported Adelaide festivals like Fringe, the Festival of Arts and the Cabaret Festival.

“I have an aspiration for the future,” he said. “We believe that, having had this three-year break from 2013, that this festival like the other great festivals of Adelaide deserves to be annual.

“It’s much easier for audiences and more effective for sponsors if you’re presenting in an annual rhythm.  The seeds of sustainability bear more fruit in an annual pattern. The evidence is in that annual is the way.”

For details of this weekend’s event, go here.


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