Lieven Bertels

Lieven Bertels is the current Director of Sydney Festival. Born in Belgium, he brought an international outlook to Sydney. Of festival makers he says “We are carnies. We travel around with a circus tent of ideas and we do our tricks but we will always have to learn the lay of the land some way.” He sees himself as a hands-on director interested in all aspects of festival-making: the concept, production, the fundraising, the finance. 2016 will be Lieven’s third and final Sydney Festival; he hands the baton to Wesley Enoch for 2017. In the excerpt below, Lieven reflects on the changing nature of corporate sponsorship over the long life of Sydney Festival.

We have come to see the end of old school corporate sponsorship. The idea that somebody talks to the CEO of the company, you have a well-connected board member and they have a chat with somebody running a big company and they will tell the underlings to write a cheque. That’s done and gone; that’s never going to come back. That was almost corporate philanthropy, where people felt it was in their interest and it was needed for them to be seen doing good things. That came with civic pride and civic responsibility and especially in a very tightly-knitted community like Australia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a lot of that. And it came with a seat on the board. But it was really a very classical model of sponsorship. That’s completely gone. All of these companies are now run in a very different way. There’s different ethics and culture in a lot of these corporations; the ownership is further removed from the day-to-day running of these companies. And the day-to-day running looks at it with a very pragmatic, practical view and only sees value in this kind of sponsorship from a marketing perspective.

We have to remember that it’s against all odds to find sponsorship for a festival to start with because we are selling intangible goods, we are selling the dream. We don’t have a venue that you can put your name on, we don’t exist for eleven months, we only exist for one month, so if you have an arts company that sits in a beautiful building or a ballet school or again a children’s hospital, you have the physical presence. We don’t have a lot of physical presence. But what we do have is a number of unique elements that other people don’t have, including access to beautiful international work. The free stuff we put on is still massively attractive to bigger sponsorships, for instance that in the Festival Village, people love that we have an audience that is not just passing through, they’re actually actively engaged with the Festival. They will come with their family and they will do things, they will be in activities with people. A small example: we had a sponsor that is a brand of sports clothing, mainly aiming, I think, at the female market, and they started with pop-up yoga sessions in the Village in the morning and to their own surprise they had triple the success of what they had aimed for. We had to expand the area that we gave them because there were hundreds of yoga people that wanted to do that in the morning.

It has meant a shift in the job description of a festival director. I think if you go back in our own history and if you were to look at the amount of time I would spend in my relationship with some philanthropic donors, that’s very different from what it must have been ten years ago or twenty years ago, because there’s more at stake, we’re more relying on it.

This interview is part of the City of Sydney’s oral history project, Sydney Festival through the eyes of its Directors, 1977-2016

Interviewer
Martin Portus