Unbeknownst to many, outgoing Adelaide Festival CEO and current City of Adelaide councillor Sandy Verschoor has been a key figure in Adelaide’s recent cultural renaissance.
When people reflect on the way Adelaide has changed in recent times, they’ll mention a few things: the ever-expanding festival scene, the small bar explosion, the ‘activation’ of alleyways and increasingly visible arts communities. You can thank Sandy Verschoor for a lot of this transformation. Working alongside a slew of talented individuals, she’s had a hand in each of those developments, in one way or the other.
Verschoor’s CV reads like a progress update of some of Adelaide’s most recent cultural achievements. She helped turn WOMAD into an annual event with Ian Scobie and assisted with the start of the Adelaide Film Festival. She took the Fringe Festival (as CEO) annual with the then artistic director Christie Anthoney in 2007. Shifting into local government, after leaving Fringe in 2010, she helped develop what would become the Vibrant City agenda. After that stint, Verschoor moved to state government to become the executive producer of the Festival of Ideas. Her criss-crossing across government and art sector boundaries didn’t stop there as she moved back to council as a general manager to build the Splash Adelaide activation program and help craft the small bar legislation that John Rau championed. From there, she became the CEO of Windmill Theatre, expanding their international touring into China, and soon after became interim CEO of the Adelaide Festival, shepherding the golden-goose of arts festivals through its most dramatic funding and staffing shakeup in years.
The key theme in that rapid-fire thread of cultural roles? Change. Verschoor is the rare type of individual who doesn’t fear change, but welcomes it, embracing the tumult, energy, progress and excitement it can breed in a community.
“The idea of transition is something that I love doing,” Verschoor says. “I will generally give as much time of myself until I feel that it’s ready to hand to someone who can consolidate as opposed to getting through the transition.
“It’s not that I’m always looking for the next thing,” she says. “It’s actually that I’ll put a lot of energy into something, then when I feel I’ve done as much as I can do, I’ll start looking for the next thing.”
Asked what stands out to her in her work as Adelaide Festival CEO, Verschoor says “the thing I’m most proud of is that we actually delivered the ‘17 Festival and it was a cracker. We broke all box office records, so not only was it a great program but the delivery of it and the team that worked on it was extraordinary.”
With the appointment of Rob and Torben Brookman as director and deputy director of Adelaide Festival, Verschoor is happy to see “people of their calibre” take the reins. Having worked with Rob mostly recently at Windmill Theatre on Pinocchio and Rumpelstiltskin – and, in the past, WOMAD – she says the transition is a comfortable one.
“We’re buddies. We’ve worked together. We’ve done co-productions together, so it’s a very easy transition for us, and a very open one too because we’ve got a great relationship as a starting point.”
Looking back it makes sense that Verschoor would be such an influential figure in Adelaide’s recent cultural flux, but it wasn’t always to be that way. Her arrival and ascension in the local arts scene is as unlikely as any other.
“I actually got into the arts through football,” she says. Wait, what?
Verschoor recounts her experience working on the mid-‘90s splitting of a local radio station license into 5AA and TAB Radio.
“I came in to work on that,” she says. “They brought in Baz and Pilko and Ken Dickin and Cornesy, David Hookes was there. I worked with that team, then when the Crows joined the AFL, I worked very closely with the marketing director in the AFL to secure the broadcast rights. We worked together for months and months to get the broadcast rights into the station and bring football into the KG and Cornes show. I’m not a particularly sporting person, so I had great fun because I didn’t know sports or who all these people were. I famously asked Sam Newman who he was and he thought that was wonderful.”
From there, it was a fortuitous shift into the arts thanks to a “fantastic working relationship with Mark Colley” who had been marketing director of the Crows and became marketing and development director at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Colley brought Verschoor in as his marketing manager and he then went to work for the Olympics soon after and Verschoor assumed his role leaving her to work on Barrie Kosky and Robyn Archer’s ’96 and ’98 iterations of the festival.
It was a big shift from the world of broadcasting and football to one of arts and high culture, but Verschoor quickly felt at home.
“I was quite disoriented when I started because it was such a different environment to work in, but within a relatively short space of time I actually felt that I was with my ‘tribe’, which is one of those funny words, but I just sort of felt, ‘I get these people’.”
Verschoor grew up in Elizabeth, the first daughter of a newly emigrated Dutch family who had their own artistic inclinations. “Mum and Dad were very arts-literate, if you like,” says Verschoor. “Big readers, always listening to music. Mum was very into film and we all danced and we all played instruments because that was how they were brought up.
“Back in the day, Elizabeth was a very different place because it was still that big shiny, new satellite city. People would always try to get teaching contracts there. It was a great place for people to try new things.”
It’s this spirit of ‘trying new things’ that Verschoor wants Adelaide to continue to embrace. As her role as Adelaide Festival’s interim CEO winds to an end, Verschoor is keen to focus on her work as a councillor, with a strong focus on culture.
“There are some things I really want to see if I can push through. They are certainly in the cultural space, but the capital ‘c’ cultural space – they’re about what it is to be in the city as opposed to just arts and culture. It’s about understanding that culture needs to be a pillar or a foundation of how you talk about your city and what your city is. It’s not an afterthought or a tack-on or a leftover. It actually needs to be part of everything we do.”
Having worked as a general manager within the bureaucracy of the council, Verschoor has an edge in her work as an elected member. This benefits the whole team, too, she says.
“I really do think it’s to the advantage of everyone, because when something comes up I can look at it or think about it in terms of what might happen to it in an administrative sense, but also from where the council must take a strategic role, or where some groups might be neglected or getting too much of the pie.”
Verschoor talks passionately about ‘game-changers’ for Adelaide. Citing those past successes of small bar legislation and the Splash program, she says the city must push on and, crucially, take risks to flourish.
“You look at these things, like Leigh Street was closed as a Splash project, Peel Street was a Splash project. The whole point was to test and trial these things. Some of them didn’t work, and that’s fine, because you’ve got to stop people being so risk averse that they won’t try anything.”
So what are some of the next ‘gamechangers’ for the city?
“One of the things that is in play at the moment is the 10 Gig City [the plan to install 10 gigabit optic fibre for businesses across the city]. It’s a gamechanger, without a doubt. So it’s a matter of how we can get behind that and make it happen.”
And back into the arts zone, Verschoor is a passionate advocate for the current discussions around massive new arts developments.
“I do think we need a dedicated concert hall. I do think that we should have a contemporary art gallery. I think they are the things that will change Adelaide. I mean, you look at a city like Bilbao. If Bilbao didn’t have a Guggenheim, who would go to Bilbao? It’s those things, and it’s about being brave and bold and not being too afraid to push the boundaries a bit.
“People want artistic energy to be in their city. You don’t have to do it yourself – it’s got nothing to do with whether you can do art or can’t do art – I can’t draw to save myself. It’s about the environment you want to be in. When people travel you ask them what they do and what see and generally it falls into wilderness and nature or it falls into culture and experience. If that’s what people want, then as a city let’s build that.”