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This festival is widely recognised as one of the great international arts festivals, while its accompanying Writers’ Week is the largest literary event of its kind.

After years of manoeuvring by the Adelaide establishment from within the Town Hall and the Adelaide Club, the first modest festival, modelled on the much larger annual Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, was held in March 1960, mainly at venues in or near the University of Adelaide. Its artistic director, local music professor John Bishop, is regarded as the festival’s founding father. The biennial event, which has grown in both size and influence, has been kept at the forefront of artistic innovation by a diversity of directors, among them Robert Helpmann, Anthony Steel, Christopher Hunt, Jim Sharman, the Earl of Harewood, Barrie Kosky, Rob Brookman and Adelaide-born performer Robyn Archer, who in 1998 became the first woman in charge.

The Development of the Festival

In 1973 a bipartisan approach to the building of the Adelaide Festival Centre by successive state Liberal and Labor governments gave the festival a focus for performance in a city that, like Edinburgh, had already proved itself the ideal size for a major celebration of all the arts. The festival’s temperate autumn timeframe also encourages a high percentage of outdoor events to complement the music, theatre, dance, opera and visual arts activities in Adelaide’s theatres and galleries. The same happy combination of climate and easy movement between locations also contributes to the success of the concurrent Adelaide Festival Fringe.

Although the festival has developed its strong international profile through thousands of visiting artists and hundreds of productions, it has, with rare exceptions, also striven to maintain its relevance to its own South Australian community, including the rural areas. As well as keeping the faithful in their seats, Kosky’s 1996 festival found a younger audience with its youth-orientated pitch and imaginative use of outdoor venues.

The Festival Today

Archer’s 2000 program presented 67 separate shows and 37 world premieres. For the 2002 festival the American theatre, opera and television director Peter Sellars has engaged eight artistic associates to develop themes and ideas. Twenty-two festivals later such a democratic concept might be alien to the Adelaide establishment old guard who, no doubt with the ladies egging them on, started it all. But the Adelaide Festival of Arts changed city and state from a cultural whistlestop to one of the world’s leading arts destinations.

By Lance Campbell

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly and references updated. Uploaded [date 2015].

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