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Regional Art Stories Four Winds is a very special place

Four Winds is a very special place, can you please tell us about it and how it came into being?

Four Winds was founded by a group of friends in the early 1990s. The early Festivals were run by an entirely voluntary committee and made use of a natural amphitheatre, which is now known as Four Winds ‘Natures Concert Hall’. The motivation to create the Festival came from Four Winds Founder Neilma Gantner who loved Bermagui and Barragga Bay (located on the Far South Coast of NSW) but believed ‘there must be more to life than fishing’. After various temporary structures ensured visiting musicians were kept out of the elements, a new permanent Sound Shell, designed by renowned architect Philip Cox was built in 2012. The Sound Shell was complemented by the development of a Clinton Murray designed recital hall the ‘Windsong Pavilion’ which opened in 2014. It has been heralded as having one of the finest acoustics in Australia. These new, permanent structures have allowed Four Winds to go from a biennial Festival to year-round arts organisation presenting a program of Festivals and events as well as a major music education program.

In addition to a year-long program of events, the Four Winds Easter Festival is well known for being an incredible experience. What do you think makes this event so successful?

Our exceptional location on the beautiful Far South Coast of NSW is a major factor in our success. There’s nowhere else in Australia where the elements present at Four Winds come together – nature, music and shared creativity. Nature is ever present at Four Winds because Natures Concert Hall is located in a bush setting, 9kms from Bermagui. As you arrive at Four Winds you enter a stunning natural landscape – the perfect setting to hear amazing quality live music performances. One thing that is very special about Four Winds is the natural soundscape: birds, frogs, the breeze in the gum-trees. This greatly enhances people’s experience of music; at times it seems like nature and music are in perfect harmony at Four Winds. We also present events in beautiful nearby venues, such as local homes or the Dickinson Oval in the heart of town.

We also know that our audience loves to come to Four Winds because it always allows them to discover something new - beyond the conventions of the concert hall. People can see familiar artists collaborating in new ways, meet international artists at the Festival and hear music they didn’t know they were going to love. All this is experienced among a like-minded community of music lovers and complemented by beautiful local food and wine served among the eucalypts.

At the 2019 festival, you hosted a community day, inspired by the Bermagui Fishing Boat Lady Jane, which received funding through the Regional Arts Fund. Can you tell us about this event?

This event came about through a conversation about an old Bermagui Fishing boat languishing on the Bermagui industrial estate awaiting the next phase of her life. Bermagui has a long history as a fishing town; both commercial and leisure fishing. Taking Lady Jane as our inspiration we worked with the Bermagui Historical Society as well as the local community to find out all we could about Lady Jane and to use those facts and stories as the starting point for the creation of a free community performance. The community became involved as performers as well as creating bunting for the set in a long lead-in to the event itself. For the Festival, Lady Jane was moved to the heart of Bermagui and became central to a music, dance and story-telling performance featuring Festival musicians, local Indigenous performers, community dancers and special guests. About 1000 people attended the free performance which opened the 2019 Easter Festival. The Regional Arts Fund enabled all the creative work leading into this unique and very special performance which went right to the heart of this seaside community and will be remembered for many years to come.

How do you encourage new visitors to come to Four Winds? Are most of your attendees local to Bermagui or do they travel statewide and nationally to attend?

Our audience comes from far and wide. We attract about 20% of our audience from Sydney and surrounds, 15% from ACT and 20% from the other Australian States/Territories as well as overseas visitors. 40% are local – but for us that means within a radius of 1.5 hours drive of Bermagui. In 2019, 20% of the audience had not been to the Festival before. We know that the main reason for people coming to the Festival is through personal recommendation so ‘word-of-mouth’ is really important for Four Winds. That’s why we pay such a lot of attention to providing a great experience for audiences. In 2019 we also ran an audience development initiative called Test Drive which allowed our most loyal audience members and volunteers to bring a guest who hadn’t been to the Festival before.

Can you tell us about some of the highlights and challenges that you’ve had running Four Winds?

The highlights are always artistic. An added factor is that because our Artistic Director James Crabb loves to create collaborations often the performances at Four Winds are invariably unique to the Festival or concert. It’s always exciting when you know ‘that you were there…’’. The quality of our events is incredibly high and our informal, intimate performance spaces means that we all can get up-close and personal with the artists. This really adds to people’s connection with the music and their memories of the events; the brilliance of the musicians performing at Four Winds can be truly awe-inspiring. A big highlight for 2018 was our inaugural Youth Music Festival which brought about 800 local young people to Four Winds to perform together – it was – in the words of the NSW Minister for the Arts Don Harwin who attended “truly inspiring”.

An exciting challenge has been developing Four Winds year-round program – to complement the Easter Festival and Youth Music Festival. Over the last couple of years, we have experimented with various formats and ideas, including one-day music Festivals and out-door film. The challenge has been, through experimenting with different ideas and formats, finding an annual program which audiences respond to and which we can sustain as an organisation – we believe we have a great model now which we can deliver to a really high standard for our audiences.

A significant challenge we have is the shortage of great musicians to deliver our music education program throughout the year. We have some amazing musicians on the South Coast, but we really need more to nurture the musical creativity of the next generation.

Finally, for those of us lucky enough to visit Bermagui, what are your top tips for things to visit and explore?

This is a stunning part of NSW. Many people who visit take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the fabulous beaches and bush walks. The Blue Pool – a natural, large rock-pool is a favourite swimming spot. There are plenty of beautiful vantage points along the cost to watch the whales when they are passing by on their way to/from the north. Food and drink is a major part of life in Bermagui. Visitors enjoy great fish, celebrated local Wapengo Oysters, artisan bakeries, coffee shops, hand-crafted Gelati and a variety of fabulous restaurants serving local produce. There are local heritage towns to visit in Tilba and the most significant local landmark, Mt Gulaga connects visitors to the region’s living Indigenous culture.