Heart of the Arts, The Adelaide Festival Centre at 40

Heart of the Arts

The Adelaide Festival Centre at 40


Heart of the Arts
The Adelaide Festival Centre at 40

by Lance Campbell


The Adelaide Festival Centre was the first capital city performance arts centre in Australia and opened on 2 June 1973. Over the next 40 years the Festival Centre has built an international reputation for creativity and cultural enterprise. The Centre has been a significant partner and supporter of the national and state performing arts companies, indigenous arts, diverse festivals and a champion of new Australian work and Australian artists.

It was built specifically for the Adelaide Festival of Arts but during that time, and particularly during the last 15 years has hosted shows, festivals, plays and any other form of entertainment which have delighted and enraptured Adelaide and South Australian audiences. Some 83 per cent of people who travelled to Adelaide in March did so to visit the Adelaide Festival Centre. Its many interstate and international visitors make up more than 25 per cent of the audience.

Its 40 years history has been lovingly recorded by Lance Campbell and as a result Heart of the Arts is filled not only with the story of the centre but also with hundreds of colour and black and white photographs of artists, shows, displays and anything else worthwhile to show the importance of the arts, the building and the institution to South Australians.

Lance Campbell’s first arts feature article was about the opening of the Dunstan Playhouse in 1974. As with many other South Australians in Heart of the Arts, that early Festival Centre experience was a turning point. Lance has written about the arts ever since. In 1998 he wrote By Popular Demand: The Adelaide Festival Centre Story for its 25th anniversary. This latest effort deals with the Centre’s last fifteen years, during which time the centre has evolved into a program-led performing arts centre.

Performing arts centres can be ‘the temples of the 21st century where people come together to experience events, ideas and emotions that bind communities together’. Heart of the Arts: the Festival Centre at 40 explains how the Adelaide Festival Centre has moved from making magnificent musicals to capturing the imaginations of all ages on and off the stage in the 21st century. Often this progress has been made against all odds. The book also goes on to show its vision for the next 40 years.

The stars and the people behind the scene, as well as those in front of the house and the many volunteers shine in Adelaide’s Heart of the Arts. So too do the Centre’s dazzling creations of the past 15 years. Among them the biggest and best cabaret festival on the planet, the world-first OzAsia Festival and at last count, more than 900.000 people a year enjoyed the Festival Centre.

Opening night of the Festival Theatre in 1973 marked the beginning of the Festival Centre’s profound influence on our nation’s cultural growth. The Centre led the way in talent, originality and sheer showbiz daring on an international as well as local scale. It still does, though times and ways and means are different now. Even so, after 40 years performers still love appearing in this ‘truly romantic place’. Performers from overseas are justly impressed with the professionalism of the backstage and front of house people.

The most impressive group of backstage people are the Flymen of the fly tower. There is still no automated operation system at the Festival Theatre. It is all done by hand, often 25 metres above the stage. When the Phantom of the Opera was on they managed to bring the Paris Opera House to life inside a minute, every night. When South Pacific was played they landed a plane and flip it over as well.

Each June the finest artists in the world make the long trip to Adelaide for a 15 night burst of renewable energy in the Festival Centre. By successfully putting on the Cabaret Festival for the past 12 years the centre management has shown other cities what can be done and how it is done. Both Melbourne and Brisbane now also have a Cabaret Festival. Adelaide is still known internationally for its Adelaide Festival and Cabaret Festival.

No wonder South Australia is known as the Festival State. With ten different festivals each year it attracts an audience of three million and has an economic impact of more than $60 million. Since 2010 there is the High School Cabaret, started by students from Blackwood, Norwood Morialta, Seaview High and Pembroke.

Lance Campbell has made a point of including everyone and everything that goes on at the Festival Centre, making the book a treasure trove in its own right. In the past decade the Adelaide Festival Centre has taken the lead in Asian-Australian cultural engagement, and is recognised as a national centre of excellence in this area with OzAsia as its flagship program.

OzAsia fosters a cooperative spirit with nations across our region and with our local Asian communities and artists. OzAsia started in 2007 with the Moon Lantern Festival, in which 30 Asian community groups and a dozen schools took part, attracting more than 20.000 people. If the staged shows by the superstars of the Asian performing arts in the Festival Centre are included that number swells to 60.000.

Since OzAsia people from all parts of Asia are becoming more open to seeing and accepting other cultures. Without the support of our Asian communities this festival would not exist. OzAsia leads the way in both Australia and Asia in the exploration of multiculturalism through the arts. Both in 2008 and 2009 OzAsia was awarded the Ruby Award for best work or event.

There are still more festivals. Another very successful one has been the Adelaide International Guitar Festival which now also runs the International Classical Guitar competition, twice won by former Marryatville High School student Andrey Lebedev. The Festival and competition has become one of the top tier guitar competitions anywhere in the world making a lasting contribution to the musicians and music audiences in South Australia.

The Festival Centre has also been involved in buying art, particularly Australian art. Among some of the works are those of Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams, Syd Ball. It has an Indigenous art program as well with an annual Our Mob exhibition. The Performing Arts Collection now has 80.000 mementoes of South Australia’s live heritage theatre going back more than 130 years.

With all this and still more good news in the book, there are also some very worrying problems. As a piece of 1970s architecture the Festival Centre still stands up well but is showing its age. Unless something is done soon the time will come when a lot less is possible. Campbell has highlighted some of the problems of the slowly ageing Centre. The price to be paid for so called savings, made during construction, when money was tight is now due.

From the wooden blocks that line the Auditorium to the leaks of the Plaza, where the cost cuts were deepest, urgent repairs and major upgrades are badly needed. In some places it is ‘Bandaids and Bluetack’ that keeps the place together. Another cost cut, the footbridge across the Torrens, suggested in 1974 to link the Festival Centre with the Adelaide Oval seems to become a reality now.

Whereas other similar types of buildings in other states have had major upgrades or makeovers the Adelaide Festival Centre has not. It has been neglected by successive governments. To bring the building up to modern standards, inside and out, will cost at least $50 million. Will it still be in good enough shape to sustain its role over the next 40 years?

The Adelaide Festival Centre is even more loved today than when it arrived in our lives 40 years ago as Australia’s first capital city performing arts centre. With Heart of the Arts Lance Campbell has not only written a history of the Festival Centre but also made a more than convincing case that the Adelaide Festival Centre deserves the care and attention that will help it leap on to the next stage of its already brilliant career.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Heart of the Arts, by Lance Campbell,
with full colour illustrations throughout,
is available at $39.95 from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


If you would like to find out more,
please go to HOME PAGE for more information.
Thank you for visiting Flinders Ranges Research,
We hope you enjoy your stay and find the information useful.
This site has been designed and is maintained by FRR.