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River of ideas sparks community festival

The 2011 Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival revealed a strong community desire in central west NSW to connect diverse groups and showcase local talent.

After gaining a Regional Arts Fund grant to develop her project The Kate Kelly Song Cycle, Forbes writer and producer Merrill Findlay saw the opera would be best realised in a festival format that other creative locals could benefit from.

The community was recovering from a period of drought, and with no access to arts centres or contemporary theatre venues, Findlay said locals felt their creative needs were not being met.

In light of this, Findlay and the Central West Arts Group partnered with Lachlan Landcare to develop a river-themed three-day festival that weaved the history of Forbes into arts and cultural activities.

“As a writer, I believe passionately in the power of narratives to effect change, and in the responsibility of arts workers to be agents of change,” Findlay said. “Organisations like Landcare recognised the benefits a river-themed arts festival could bring to people in the Lachlan and other inland river catchments. So what else could we do, but use the Kate Kellyproject and the NSW Landcare and Catchment Management conference to launch a regional arts festival, and campaign to establish Forbes as the cultural hub of inland NSW?”

Acting as the Landcare conference’s opening event, the festival brought together a wide range of partners spanning local council to sports and youth groups. The Central West Astronomical Society, Forbes Netball and NSW Probation and Parole Service were among the diverse project partners.

A Regional Arts NSW CASP grant allowed the Central West Arts Group to include a lantern parade in the festival, which would honour the legacies of Forbes’ Chinese settlers.

Other key festival events included the local indigenous community’s ‘Welcome to Country’ festival opening, led by Wiradjuri descendent Russell Hill.

Arts OutWest Regional Arts Development Officer Tracey Callinan said the Aboriginal community being a central part of the festival was “quite a major step in a town where some have felt marginalised in the past.”

The main event day drew a 2000-strong crowd, while the premiere of The Kate Kelly Song Cycle on closing night received a standing ovation.

Findlay believed the festival highlighted the social, cultural and economic dividends gained from supporting creative people in regional towns.

“It changed the way people thought about themselves, their town and their environment. It gave local arts and craftsworkers, of all backgrounds and ages, opportunities to interact and share and sell their work, and it opened up new opportunities for indigenous groups,” Findlay said.

Planning is now underway for the October 25-27 2013 event, which will again invite community members to contribute ideas to the festival. Findlay said, “Our goal is to make the Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival the major arts event in central NSW within the next decade.”

Merrill Findlay will be awarded the NSW Regional Arts Australia Award, which acknowledges the contribution volunteer leaders make to the cultural life of their local communities. The award will be presented next Sunday October 21, at the Kumuwuki / Big Wave conference in Goolwa.