So Long & Thanks for all the Art
Interview with Martin Paten
by Steve Proposch
This year’s Castlemaine State Festival will be the fifth and final event under the direction of Martin Paten. Glyn Roberts, previously Creative Producer at La Boite Theatre Company and Curator of Brisbane Festival’s highly successful Theatre Republic, will soon take the helm of Victoria’s premier arts and cultural celebration and set sail for 2019. Roberts will visit Castlemaine during this year’s Festival ahead of relocating with his family to the area and commencing his new position on 1st June 2017.
These are exciting and regenerative times for the Festival which began in 1976, primarily due to the generosity of Berek Segan (AM OBE) and a commitment to the idea of hosting a sophisitcated international arts festival in a small country town. The organisation is looking to soon relocate offices to the revamped and spacious Castlemaine Goods Shed site, and it feels like a permanent fix. Thus Roberts will be entering the scene, Stage Right, at a time when the Festival has never been hotter.
If questioned, Martin Paten might say that this legacy is less to do with his own leadership over the last ten years, and more to do with the amazing artists, performers and Staff who have been involved behind the scenes. This is no doubt mostly true. As regional arts festivals become commonplace, springing up like capeweed in paddocks all over the country, holding your own place as Australia’s flagship regional arts festival becomes that much harder, and the CSF Team has needed to stay on its toes, to say the least. Add in a highway of major technological disruption, rampant commercial greed, and political stupidity, and you realise that it must have taken a special lightness of touch and adaptability to overcome many sudden obstacles and opportunities on that road, and that Martin’s Direction has been significant in not only gaining that destination, but arriving there early.
Describe your life around work before the Castlemaine State Festival – managing Melbourne’s Major Festivals Program, Melbourne Laneway Commissions, Conversations Program, and the City’s Art & Heritage collection – were you living in the city then or commuting?
Martin Paten: When I started working at the City of Melbourne, I lived and breathed a city existence. My wife and I had bought an old factory in Northcote, where we lived amidst a large art studio environment, furnished in a fairly improvised fashion, thanks to plenty of creative salvaging from skips. Working in the heart of the city, on the corner of Swanston and Little Collins Streets, I headed up a suite of programs packaged together under the open-ended title of City Culture. My role changed considerably over the ten years I worked within the Arts and Culture Branch but variously included pretty much all the local and international festival programs supported by the City of Melbourne, also Melbourne Conversations, the Town Hall Organ, Public Art commissioning and the management of the City’s cultural collection which had an astounding 34,000 items. I am proud to say I was at the helm of Moomba, the year the Herald Sun awarded us the front-page headline of “NAKED MOOMBA SHOCK” after a Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights-inspired performance. I have worn a T-shirt emblazoned with the NAKED MOOMBA SHOCK bill poster for many years until it recently disintegrated.
Do you still have strong connections to the city?
MP: I do. I grew up in Melbourne and continue to have many friends and family there. I am usually in Melbourne at least once a week for work-related meetings. Generally the train is my preferred means of travel to Melbourne, giving time for a chat, a doze, a read or last minute planning. Melbourne is a really great city and its continued cultural and architectural evolution is endlessly surprising. I may live there again, but I love the bush too much to move back there anytime soon.
Describe your life around work during the Castlemaine State Festival – are the challenges and pressures of CSF very different from those of urban Festivals?
MP: Directing the Castlemaine State Festival has probably been my most challenging but most enjoyable role to date. Its complexity is hard to summarise. It includes a complex and wide-ranging set of stakeholder relationships from the local to the regional, from the state and to federal partnerships – all of which help the wheels turn and need ongoing nurturing. I guess the main difference between this and the past major festivals I have been involved with is that I did not then have to personally source the funds necessary to run them. With the Castlemaine State Festival it is always a huge challenge to put together a program that is fresh, compelling, ambitious, artistically varied, culturally engaging and, crucially, one that can be paid for. We strive to provide as many free events as possible and need to keep our ticket prices affordable to local as well as visiting audiences. We have managed to keep our funds just in the black each cycle. In terms of just getting the job done, I am fortunate to now be surrounded with a generous, funny and super-smart Festival team. I do stay close to pretty much every detail of the event and, while trying not to micro-manage, in the end the ‘buck stops with me’.
As Director of the last five biennial Festivals (2009-2017) you have presided over unprecedented levels of creative excellence and increased financial success in the organisation, and have achieved this during a time of fierce public funding cuts and increased competition for private funds for Arts & Literature. How was this achieved? Clark, are you really Superman?
MP: Superman, I am not! And thank you for those kind accolades – which should really go to all the marvelous artists who have made the “unprecedented levels of creative excellence” you speak of. I do however love making ideas and art possible, broker relationships and artistic possibilities in a careful, considered and persistent way, and I try to be a good listener. I take this job very seriously and have worked hard to build the Festival into a more professional and agile entity. I think having had the early employment experience in local government has helped me to better understand political relationship protocols and how the funding system works. Whilst there is a certain amount of luck when it comes to timing, awareness of what has been happening politically has undoubtedly helped us to stay a step ahead of the recent funding cuts.
Even though this is a State Festival, the event belongs to the people of Castlemaine and I admit that it has been hard at times to keep everyone happy. The locals are not known for holding back when they have an opinion, and I have taken a few serious tongue-lashings in this job – with almost every tongue-lashing closely followed by an apology and a hug. It’s a measure of the depth of emotional investment the Castlemaine State Festival represents to so many.
Have you compiled a list of highlights from the CSF years yet? Do you have a moment from each Festival – good and/or bad – that you can easily recall?
MP: I have not yet had the luxury to reflect on the Festival highlights and lowlights of the past 10 years. But each Festival Opening Night is extra special because its the moment we flick the switch and hold tight for the 10 day ride. All of our Opening Night events have been newly created, big, risky and unpredictable works. Each result from two years of planning, starting with a single idea that grows to become a public performance – we see it as a gift to this community. That Opening Night art-making process, with Jude Anderson (in past Festivals) and for the 2017 Festival Sam Thomas, is always remarkable.
Ultimately, the most complex projects remain the most memorable for me, probably because we have overcome immense risks to deliver incredible works; from securing visa approvals for all the Cuban artists, to the physical risks for artists performing in The Republic of Trees at Vaughan Springs, to transforming the Castlemaine Woollen Mill from a disused and abandoned former industrial site to being safe, clean and ready to host thousands of visitors in 2017. I also treasure the Festival’s Youth Mentorships program. Christmas is a lie , which was part of Text Alley in 2013, involved working with Year 9 and 10 Castlemaine Secondary College students doing ‘pop up’ paste ups in Frederick Street, and was a sensation; probably one of the most potent and controversial pieces of art over my time here. Exciting stuff. I want to write about the whole thing one day. And I especially loved Raildomino, the 50-metre rollercoaster of steel railway tracks devised by Belgium company Timecircus, Castlemaine Secondary College students and artisan workers at the Vossloh Cogifer factory. It was just such a successful collaboration. To me, there is nothing greater than a Festival full house, when artists and audiences all become deeply connected, and affected by that performative moment.
Christmas is a lie 2013, part of a Castlemaine Secondary College (CSC) festival project called ‘Text Alley’, received harsh criticism from locals, branded by some as a form of religious vilification, and by others as attempting to ruin the magic of Christmas for children. The artwork was defaced during the Festival and went through a number of transformations. See the Midland Express article here
One particular lowlight for me was cracking a couple of ribs after falling down some slippery steps on the closing night of the 2013 Festival, whilst on my way to the volunteer party. After a spectacular airborne spill, I lay on my back in the pouring rain, unable to move other than to call my wife on my mobile. After she peeled me out of the mud, I cleaned up, got to the party to give a few heartfelt thanks and finished the night in casualty at Mt Alexander Hospital. Take care when running on wet leaves, is the lesson.
What about the future – where will you go from here?
MP: I honestly don’t know what the future holds. I decided to resign from the Castlemaine State Festival simply because five festivals and near on ten years at the job felt like a good point to sign-off. I have been successful in securing triennial Federal and State government funding that will go through to 2019. Our stats are all looking pretty good in terms of attendances and happy punters, there is an excellent Board of management in place and a wonderfully strong Festival team – many of whom I am sure will stay on for 2019.
Post 2017 Festival, the Castlemaine Goods Shed will become the new home of the Castlemaine State Festival and a new creative hub for the town I hope. So it’s a strong position to leave the Festival in and it’s an incredibly exciting time ahead for Castlemaine. Whilst in some ways it is sad to leave when things are going so well, its absolutely the right time. I am looking forward to taking a bit of a break and then to what the next work chapter holds for me. For the time being I plan to continue in my roles as Deputy Director of the Board of Regional Arts Australia and as a Board Member of Regional Arts Victoria. Both are roles I enjoy and which allow me to make meaningful contributions to the arts in regional Australia.
Acrobat performs a gritty and irreverent take on theatre, It’s Not For Everyone, at the 2017 Castlemaine State Festival, Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 March, 9pm at the Castlemaine Goods Shed.
CASTLEMAINE STATE FESTIVAL, 17 – 26 MARCH 2017 – castlemainefestival.com.au