The art of tradition

Tanderrum at Melbourne International Arts Festival. Photo by James Henry.
Why do some events resonate so strongly with audiences that they become instant favourites, whereas other programming decisions quickly fall by the wayside? By Richard Watts.


Whether four years old or tens of thousands of years old, certain events just click with audiences. They become expected, even loved – and their absence can lead to outcry.

Originally presented in 2015 as part of Artistic Director David Berthold’s first Brisbane Festival, Symphony For Me is a free concert which sees members of the public sharing intimate and surprising stories about their favourite piece of classical music, after which each piece is performed live by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

‘It was a big surprise to me in my first festival in ’15 that all 1500 of those [Symphony For Me] tickets in the Concert Hall disappeared in 17 minutes. That exceeded all of our expectations. And not only did they get snapped up so quickly, everyone turned up!’ Berthold said.

As with any free, ticketed event, drop-offs from people who have booked were expected with Symphony For Me, but as it eventuated, no contingency plans were needed.

‘We had all sorts of schemes as how to fill the seats of a couple of hundred people who don’t actually show up, but everyone did,’ Berthold said, still sounding somewhat surprised at the event’s immediate popularity.

Symphony For Me was repeated in 2016, this time booking out in 14 minutes flat – and again, everyone came.

‘What surprised me was that even after two years, people thought of it as a tradition,’ Berthold laughed, ‘which I only discovered when last year we didn’t do it! And we didn’t do it only because it’s quite expensive. Orchestras are expensive things, you know, and concert halls are expensive things. The only reason was that the money ran out a little bit by the time we got to that – that’s the only reason. But gee people kicked up a stink.

‘The orchestra actually missed it as well. And so this year the orchestra has given its services free of charge, because they missed it so much too – so they’ve become a partner on it for the first time this year.’

Berthold said that the combination of everyday people sharing personal stories, coupled with the power of orchestral music, resulted in a truly memorable night – perhaps explaining why Symphony For Me has become a Brisbane Festival tradition in such a short space of time.

‘It’s one of the warmest, most generous nights in the festival, I think, that night, sitting in the concert hall and hearing those local stories. And the stories this year are fantastic. I mean, it just goes to show how many amazing personal stories there are around that you just don’t expect – it gives you a really idiosyncratic snapshot of what’s going on in the city,’ he said.

Tradition by design

At Melbourne Fringe, the annual Fringe Furniture exhibition – an open-access exhibition showcasing contemporary and experimental furniture, lighting, homewares and other design objects – is very much a festival tradition.

Kristina Arnott, Melbourne Fringe Creative Projects Coordinator, suggested that events which truly speak to the community are more likely to become embedded as festival traditions.

‘I think it’s when events really service a community’s needs or interests – and they can be really specific needs – or when they provide a really particular experience for people that they don’t often get to have, then people want more and more of that,’ she said.

Now in its 32nd year, Fringe Furniture has stayed the course while similar Fringe events – including Fringe Fashion and the once-traditional Fringe Parade and Street Party – have long since fallen by the wayside.

Regularly tweaking the exhibition’s format has been essential in ensuring the event’s ongoing success, Arnott suggested.

‘We’ve moved venues every couple of years for various reasons, and that’s presented its own challenges in terms of preparing an exhibition, but it’s also kept things fresh,’ she said.

‘Also, we’ve always folded the general festival provocation into Fringe Furniture, so there’s always a theme that designers and artists are able to respond to or not – so there’s always a bit of impetus, there’s always a new angle that we’re asking designers to consider when they’re creating work or selecting work to submit to Fringe Furniture.’

At the end of each Melbourne Fringe, the festival team evaluate the strengths of every event, which helps ensure the evolution of Fringe Furniture, as opposed to its stagnation.  

‘After the last two years we noticed we weren’t having great representation of female-identifying or non-binary designers, so this year – in partnership with the Naomi Milgrom Foundation – we launched a brand new “Fringe Furniture for Gender Equality” initiative, where we’ve subsidised registration fees by the gender pay-gap, which is 15.3% for all female identifying and non-binary participants,’ Arnott explained.

‘We’re also featuring women and non-binary designers more heavily in our ancillary programming, our talks and tours and things. And interestingly this has already had a really positive impact – I think we’ve had a bigger Fringe Furniture than last year by almost a third, in terms of the number of pieces submitted, and the number of those designers who identify as part of those groups has gone from 28% last year to 38% this year already.’

Paying attention to who is under-represented at an event and taking active steps to facilitate their participation doesn’t just grow participation – it helps keep traditional events dynamic and alive.

‘That’s when you see growth, and see exciting new things happening,’ Arnott said.

Nathania Widjanarko - Eresin You Away at Fringe Furniture 2018. Photo by Shawn Koh.


While some things have changed at Melbourne Festival this year – including the event’s name, which has reverted back to the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) – some elements of the program endure. Chief among them is the festival’s opening event, Tanderrum, a ceremony conducted by Melbourne’s First Peoples – the five clan groups of the Eastern Kulin Nation.

Disrupted by European invasion, Tanderrum returned as a festival six years ago, explains MIAF’s Artistic Director, the ebullient Jonathan Holloway.

‘It started under [former AD] Josephine Ridge, who sat with the Elders of the Kulin Nation and said, “If you were to be involved with the festival in some way, what would you want to do? What would it be?” And they said we’d like to present Tanderrum … a time-honoured tradition of their culture that goes back tens of thousands of years. And Josephine said “Just tell me what you need, and how can I help?” and the festival basically facilitated that,’ Holloway explained.

‘The important thing is it is still led by and driven by and owned by the Kulin Nation, by all the generations of those five clans of the Eastern Kulin Nation, which means it comes out of a tradition that predates all of us in Australia.’

Quoting a recent conversation with a colleague, Holloway suggested that the staging of an annual festival is in fact its own tradition.

‘In the exact words of my colleague, “Putting on an annual ripper of a festival is a tradition in itself.” And I think festivals, actually by definition, fall into that sense of tradition. It’s borne from a sense that once a year we do something that we would never otherwise do. I think people mark their years by them; I think they’re a form of anniversary ... So everybody in Sydney can set their diaries, their annual clock by the Ferrython, or New Year, or by a festival. And in Melbourne, October has always traditionally been – or for 35 years now – you know that the festival is coming and you know that it’s something you’ll put time aside for. I think the content of tradition can change, but the nature of regularity is something that we all love,’ he said.

As well as Tanderrum, Holloway has inherited a second Melbourne tradition: the Melbourne Art Trams, in which examples of the city’s most idiosyncratic form of public transport are decorated by a curated selection of artists.

One of this year’s Art Trams features a design by the late David Larwill (1956—2011), who was commissioned to paint a W-Class tram in 1986 as part of the original Transporting Art project, from which Melbourne Art Trams takes its inspiration.

Holloway identifies such direct links with the past as part of the reason why we value traditions in our lives.

‘They are a way that we can reflect on where we’ve come from and where we’re going to, and continuity – I think continuity is important for everybody. We all strive for a sense of our pasts and our presents and how they’re linked, but I also think that the thing that is exciting about festivals is the breaking of tradition,’ he said.

‘It’s actually the new and completely unexpected which is often the unforgettable in festivals. So on the one hand you have the reassurance of tradition, and on the other hand you leave your comfort zone to have the astonishing surprise or shock and thrill of something new, something you never imagined. And I think it’s that tension, between the known and the unknown, that makes festivals so exciting.’

First published on Artshub on September 14, 2018.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

15 Sep 2018

The Big Idea Editor

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