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Festival City Stories 15 Jun 2021
As a former ‘ad man’ and Agent General for South Australia for over a decade, Bill Muirhead understands better than most what it takes to sell a city and state — and how festivals can provide the framework to tell a broader story to the world.
“I think we’ve always been pioneers at breaking new ground in doing artistic things,” Bill Muirhead says of his home state. “And, if I look at my career in advertising, the level of creativity in advertising here was always on a par, I would say, certainly with London or New York. In some cases, I think [it] was even better. So I think the creative will is definitely here — but I think there was this era of being a little bit sort of scared of things that were new.”
Whether in advertising or the art world (things that in Muirhead’s experience often go hand in hand), the shock of the new can be a powerful and valuable force. “In advertising, they say there are only two words that work, and they both have very different meanings: ‘new’ and ‘free’,” he explains. “For me, with anything to do with creativity, often you’re breaking new ground, you’re doing new things, you’re not just repeating something that’s happened before, and by its nature, that will then be shocking, or surprising.”
Born and raised in Adelaide, Muirhead’s family eventually relocated to London when he was 15. He eventually found himself working in the advertising industry during the 1970s, and although from afar, he could see how the “blossoming” state of the arts and festivals helped transform how his hometown was seen.
“I think they played a very important role in the State’s development and evolution and I think they still do,” he explains. “The fact that we’ve been so good at doing these things – I mean, people that I’ve met when I’ve been working in London frequently talk to me about how powerful they are in terms of the image of the State.
“It makes people from outside look at the city as though it’s more open, more progressive. I have always believed that, as a state, we’ve done things first. By its nature, the world of art is doing new things. I mean, you know, it’s about looking forward and never looking back.”
A festival, Muirhead says, is about more than what’s been programmed into galleries and theatres; it’s an opportunity for the entire state to show itself off as a package deal. “They make it much easier to sell the State, the fact that we have these festivals, from all different points of view – because the arts, I think, appeals broadly. So I think it’s a very strong selling point for us overseas in promoting South Australia and promoting the lifestyle and all the other things.
“And it’s something we have as an advantage over the other states – and we do compete with the other states, obviously, in terms of tourism and things like that. But we have a number of things here that we are very good at. Wine is obviously a big one; everyone knows that we have some of the best wines in the world, and everyone loves wine. So that [becomes] part of a celebration as well.
“And then that goes onto our hospitality industry, restaurants and hotels, and there’s no doubt that this is a city where you have this historically beautiful green curtain of parklands around the centre, and you just have to look outside and see. If you live here, you probably don’t realise how lucky you are, but when you go and live somewhere else you do come back here and think this is probably Heaven on Earth.”
Many of these things, Muirhead says, are self-evident to visitors once they arrive — but it’s the pull of a festival that often helps get them on the plane in the first place. “It’s the halo effect, I think, that festivals can bring, just by the nature of what they are. But I think this does something more than that, and you feel that people – all the people who have come here for those events – have always loved it.”
While he worries that, in some respects, we might be becoming safer, more risk-averse, he’s confident that festivals will play an important role in galvanising our state to show off what does best, while still looking forward.
“I think they’re a very important part of our future as a city; they’re connected to all of the performing arts – but it’s not just that. It’s just a really powerful way of selling the State.”
This article is part of the Festival City Stories series, a collection of reflections about Adelaide made by the people who make this a festival place. The project was funded through the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Arts South Australia, Arts Recovery Fund, and delivered in partnership with the State Library of South Australia.
Written by: Walter Marsh
Photography by: Sia Duff
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