Robyn Archer

Curating festivals

© Claudio Raschella

Robyn Archer AO is a singer, performer, writer, artistic director and public advocate for the Arts. She is known to many for her one-woman shows in the 1970s and 80s, by others for her original songs and recordings, and now by thousands more for her memorable arts festivals in Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmania.
After years of strategic advice, mentoring younger artists and artistic directors, speaking and writing about the arts across Australia and the world, Robyn has returned mainly to writing and performance. She is currently touring Australia with her latest two-hour-plus concert Robyn Archer: an Australian Songbook. The October season in Sydney has sold out in advance. In November she will deliver the inaugural Robyn Archer Oration at Flinders University.
Robyn Archer is often referred to as a national treasure. Read more at

I’m speaking again from Melbourne – traditional lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nations and pay my respect to their elders past present and emerging, and take a moment to reflect on the remarkable spread of lands involved in this Atelier – the number of them, and therefore the number and incredible breadth of First Nations peoples who should demand our respect.

We have heard a number of speakers and participants over these days talk about their work with fragile, vulnerable or marginalised communities. […] So many of you are working with diversity and inclusion in mind, and if you and your festivals have not yet got to the point where you are satisfied with your achievements in opening up – either via artists or their content, the audience or the management itself, then I get the feeling you at least are all aware of the challenges.

I would say that it’s one of the most important attributes of a healthy curatorial process – simply AWARENESS. And as someone remarked yesterday, “Once your eyes have been opened, you can’t go back.”

As curators, or those of you who assist in the curatorial process, this awareness will first come from your individual circumstances – your family, your neighbourhood, nation, education, and experience. We know a lot: the problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Then we rely on those accidental encounters that pry our eyes open. Every time I am lucky enough to be part of The Festival Academy’s activities, whether in different countries around the world over the last ten years, or this year online, I am shocked about what I don’t know – deeply grateful for what I learn each time – and ever keen to keep on learning. […]

There have been many things that I did not know naturally and had to pursue. Growing up in Adelaide in the 1950s I was unaware of the presence of First Nations people. I knew almost nothing of their 60,000 year old presence and culture, aside from the ‘myths’ and legends’ taught at Primary school. The colonising propaganda still had its unconscious sway over me until my early twenties when a friend took up the position of first community arts officer for the Adelaide Festival Centre – the dominant performing arts complex in Adelaide.

Through her, I was introduced to remarkable people doing amazing things inside Indigenous communities, first urban, and then my eyes were pried open even further when I made concert tours to the Northern Territory. Only then did I really understand what Australia was. From then on I was driven by my curiosity to know more, and eventually had the opportunity, through my festivals, to offer up that platform to First Nations art and artists. For sure, you have to work on being ever-curious, and ever alert to the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know. […]

Yesterday in our roundtable, Matjamela said to us “Do not let the fear of doing something wrong, stop you doing what you feel you want to do.” We are always going to make mistakes. We live cheek by jowl with people whose values we do not share, and of which we are often ignorant. Every mistake will allow us to learn more, and the word FORGIVENESS has already been mentioned. […]

The second word that comes to me after AWARENESS is POWER – and that’s why awareness is so important. In one way or another, we here are lucky enough to have been granted special powers – what we do as curators will affect artists, both those we invite and include, but also those we do not invite (especially in the widely dispersed world of the digital era, as those we choose may discover audiences in their millions, those we leave out miss out on that chance); and we will affect audiences close to us and those we don’t even know about.

We all see very clearly today, many of you in your own countries, just how damaging power is if it is not used wisely, shared widely. John, said yesterday ‘It starts with us.’ The choices we make in our curatorial process will have an effect and we must take responsibility for it. Small or large, our platforms are important, and can change lives – we must TAKE CARE – that other meaning within the word CURATE. And if you are not the decision maker, and you are working within a more obviously hierarchical structure, your challenge will be to judge to what extent you can have your voice heard by the decision-makers. Can you comfortably and safely influence the choices made by your curatorial lead – whether that be an artistic director, a committee, a Board or a Jury? Or will there be a risk if you dare to challenge those things which your awareness tells you are not as healthy as they should be?

[…] Anything we do has an effect. As Ahmed said, all art is political – it challenges the status quo, it is political, it does not challenge the status quo, it is political. And our choices as curators or those supporting the curatorial process are the same. Our programming choices provoke action, or they do not – either way, we are having an effect on the societies in which we live – and possibly way beyond the societies in which we live. […]

My own personal attitude towards my work as a singer and theatre artist is that I’d rather many weeks or months of a fantastic rehearsal process and then a show that was not so successful, than the other way round – that is, a very successfully final show, after months of a miserable rehearsal process. It just doesn’t make sense – it would be a crazy way to live. Of course one wants both, and a lousy show might mean you lose further opportunities – but what you do in the process is every bit as important as whatever the final product might achieve.

This speaks of the ephemeral nature of our work. Festivals are by definition ephemeral – through commissioning processes they may well be the agent of enabling artists to make new works, which have a long life, but a festival itself by definition, comes and goes. Its power is perhaps precisely in its ephemeral nature. Because it will only happen in a particular confined place at a particular compressed time, perhaps those who participate in it, both as artists and as audiences and as the enablers, the curators, the managers, perhaps they all treat it more preciously than those cultural assets we can enjoy at any time we choose. I fleetingly wonder whether some of that magic evaporates when the festival goes digital – we perhaps have a feeling that it will always be available and we can view it at our leisure, rather than having to be in a particular place at a particular time and have all our antennae up and active for that compressed moment so that we don’t miss the very thing that we can never have again. It’s the very thing I remind you of here and now – that we will never again be together again like this, in this strange room whose walls are open to a vast wide world. We should treasure this moment, and those that have passed between us in the last couple of days. […]

It takes me finally to a bit of the WHY of what we do as curators. […] We owe much of that more recent festival development to the period immediately post World War II, for instance in Edinburgh in 1947 with a festival of international theatre performances, and around the same time the great cellist Pablo Casals created a festival of music: both had one aim in mind – to re-unite Europe through the arts. […]

The answer was to come together again through the arts. It means that this model of an intense gathering and experience of the arts was not just for the sake of enjoyment of the arts, but for a vital underlying reason – to be human again, even in the face of not being able to forgive, and to make a strong statement that reuniting was the only humane possibility. If I thought about that right now, and we replicated the same commitment, many of our festivals would look very different. There are urgent pressing issues of conflict that face us all. In my country there is a damaging fall-out between Australia and China, a war of words that is resulting in real damage. Why would we not be using all our cultural resources to reunite our peoples – to ensure the great relationships that have built up over past decades are not lost in this moment of disagreements. Australia has also just last week had the reputation of its otherwise proud Defence forces badly damaged by the confirmed accusation of war crimes in Afghanistan – and a lengthy legal process will now be conducted against those alleged to have committed the crimes. If we behaved as curators did in 1947, we would now sense an urgency to create cultural connections to Afghanistan in order to demonstrate, in the face of evidence of inhumane actions, that humanity is possible between these two peoples. […]

In this moment AWARENESS is all. It’s obvious, from the way that you all speak, with such passion and thoughtfulness, that you are all doing a great job. As curators, you can’t do everything. But if you continue to develop increasing awareness, increasing sensitivity to the human condition, and remain in that humble position of admitting we don’t know what we don’t know – and pass on that awareness to those you work with, then you will take steps, and enable further steps to be taken in our various battles wherever and however they occur. And it may be tough sometimes, but remember JOY is a great medicine. Tom gave us that beautiful jewel – the arts as vaccine. Look at the joy we had of the Night Hotel, and the NH7 Weekender, and Faroffa. The ability and the power we have to enable artists to create joy for audiences – even when dealing sometimes not just with happiness, but equally with the most difficult subjects – is something very precious. I celebrate your decision to devote your working lives to this world and this task – what a privilege, to use our working lives to enable joy, and thank The Festival Academy for bringing us together to be able to share our ideas, our challenges and our hopes for the future.

Robyn Archer gave this closing statement during the online training – Curating Festivals of The Festival Academy on 26 November 2020. You can read the full statement here.

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Gdansk Shakespeare Festival © Dawid Linkowski