Anthony Steel

Anthony Steel was Director of Sydney Festival from 1995 to 1997. He reveals his struggle to retain a “serious art” focus for the Festival while facing pressure from the board to “keep it popular”. In the excerpt below, Anthony recalls two of the best remembered aspects of his years at the Festival: thrilling perambulatory theatrics on the Opera House forecourt and Jeff Koons’ polarising Puppy.

The ideal formula is, as I suggested earlier, would be to use the harbour as the stage. So rather like the New Year’s Eve fireworks, the audience would have been marshalled along the shores and something great would have happened on the harbour. The nearest we got to that, I suppose, was the big free outdoor productions in the forecourt of the Opera House, something they can’t do now for security reasons. But that turned out to be a huge success. And it’s an obvious thing for Sydney. The very first production we had there was just about ideal for the context and that was a group from Barcelona, Els Comediants, who had the most extraordinary, wild – and I would have thought from an insurance point of view, practically impossible nowadays – production. We had thirty thousand people a night in the forecourt of the Opera House, standing up, and the whole production, which had processions of huge maquettes and masses of fireworks going between the crowds – I would have thought highly dangerous, but my goodness it was successful. So we started off with a bang, to put it mildly, in more than one sense of that word.

MP: And reflecting that on the other side of Circular Quay outside the Museum of Contemporary Art was of course, Jeff Koons’ Puppy. Your use of visual arts, particularly in installations, is really interesting in making that outdoor activity happen at the Quay.

That was the idea of using large installations, of course, to help the focus on the harbour and its surrounds. Jeff Koons’ Puppy, which I think is a marvellous piece, brought to Sydney by John Kaldor, was a twelve metre high statue of a dog made of thirty thousand flowers, blooms, and it had its own watering system behind the flowers. And naturally attracted a huge amount of attention. There’ve been, I think, several puppies, as it was called, but that very puppy now sits outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao permanently. Jeff Koons has now become respectable. He gets good reviews from really serious people whose opinions I respect anyway. But the Sydney reviewers hated Puppy. They thought it was completely unimportant and not really a work of art at all. I disagree entirely – I did then. Obviously, John Kaldor disagrees too. But it got some really horrible reviews in the Sydney press.

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

Martin Portus