Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Marvel at it - our struggling festival has turned into a winner

David Inns, Auckland Arts Festival chief executive, and Victoria Carter, chairwoman of the Auckland Arts Festival board. Photo / Paul Estcourt
David Inns, Auckland Arts Festival chief executive, and Victoria Carter, chairwoman of the Auckland Arts Festival board. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Guests at the launch of the Auckland Arts Festival 2011 were greeted with the theme from Kubrick's movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey, rumbling out of the town hall organ.

It was a reference to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's festival concert featuring the work in its original form, but it also linked perfectly into the "Houston, we have lift-off" mood in the hall.

This was a coming of age for the festival. For the first time since a few adventurous Auckland City councillors began planning its birth in the summer of 1999-2000, no one saw the need to make excuses for the sickly child. There was no worrying about whether it would survive another two years, as has been the case for much of its pre-teen years.

Matching the positive mood was the singing, dancing, new mayor Len Brown, who not only said - and crooned - all the right things, but sounded as though he meant it, calling it "a party for a city with art in its heart".

It was part of making Auckland an "events city", and was good for the economy. He enthused that "a thriving artistic environment nourishes the soul".

With 75 official festival events over the three weeks - as well as fringe and other parallel events - Auckland's young festival is finally offering the spread and depth and variety of shows that used to lure me and other Aucklanders to Wellington in the 1990s heydays of the International Arts Festival.

The pushy midwife back in 2000 was city councillor Victoria Carter, whose simple and single-minded argument was "It's part of being a civilised city."

Her vision was a festival to reflect Auckland's claim to be "the first city of the South Pacific". Arts consultant Briony Ellis prepared a feasibility study for the city attractions committee which offered an alternative theme, a Pacific Rim arts festival that presented the best from Asia, the Pacific and the west coast of the Americas.

The councillors at the time preferred the Pacific focus, but it's interesting to see the latest festival combines both ideas, and then some, including works from Bolivia and China as well as France, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

It also presents the longest running act of all, the indefatigable Mrs Carter, now acting chairwoman of the festival trust and lone cheer-leader in the early days when the end, more than once, seemed nigh.

The first incarnation staggered to life, briefly, as a one-off "taster festival" in March 2001, with actors wading around a pool in the Aotea Square in a Mike Mizrahi-Gareth Farr "happening" called The Launching.

In December 2001, first director Renato Rispoli arrived and then a few months later mysteriously returned to his native Australia.

Mr Rispoli had dreamed of a $7.4 million extravaganza, but raised little cash or sponsorship to fund it. The trust cut the budget to $4.9 million and set a new first festival target of September 2003.

In March 2003, Simon Prast was hired as director with a reduced budget of $3 million and the herculean task of conjuring up a festival in six months. He somehow did it, though several existing shows and events were pulled under the festival umbrella.

Further festivals miraculously appeared in the summers of 2005, 2007 and 2009, like next year's, under the artistic leadership of David Malacari. Each built on the one before.

Next March's festival has a budget of $8.75 million, or nearly three times the 2003 event, made up of a $ 2.2 million box office take, $3.5 million in local and central government funding and the balance in sponsorship, philanthropic giving, trusts and donations.

Of course the number of events has grown too - 75 next year, compared to 47 in 2003. Fringe and other parallel events will also be much more numerous and diverse next year.

Festival organisers point out that the scale and quality of events has improved too, citing the commissioning of a new Douglas Wright dance piece, and the FranceDanse retrospective in conjunction with the French Government.

In 2003, we marvelled that we could put on a festival. Next March, we can relax and concentrate our marvelling on the shows.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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