Visionary Festival Director Gill Minervini Shares Her Journey to Becoming a Cultural Leader

Gill Minervini

The creative director and producer has brought Mardi Gras, festivals and football ceremonies to life. Her mantra? Connect, whatever the challenge.

Leave no-one behind

2021-present Festival director, Vivid Sydney

“Last year was our first back since COVID and 2.58 million people came to Vivid, which is the biggest audience we’ve ever had. I knew some Sydneysiders had disconnected from the event and I wanted to find out why. I did the research and it was clear that the 2018 and 2019 events had been hamstrung by the light-rail development. The first thing I did was create a lot more real estate for the light walk; there’s now a 8.5-kilometre illuminated band of light that goes all the way from the Opera House to Central Station. Vivid gives me the opportunity to work on the extraordinary canvas of my adopted city that I love. I had tears in my eyes on opening night last year, seeing the city back to life. This year our theme is Vivid Sydney, Naturally, inspired by the natural environment. Artists have responded incredibly to that theme. The quest throughout all my jobs is to constantly reinvent, refresh, connect and leave no-one behind – to work to lead an audience into new experiences. Those are the lessons that keep whacking me over the head.” Vivid Sydney 2023, 26 May to 17 June.

Research the audience and tell the right story

2017 Creative director, Rugby League World Cup opening ceremony

“This was an opportunity to translate my skills into another environment. I had to do research and I went to a few rugby league games. We had a show before the first game and Casey Donovan – one of the biggest talents in this country – carried it. There were people from all over the world watching. We had to make sure that the show connected with the rugby league audience in the crowd and the TV audience. It was a live broadcast and that’s a whole other set of challenges. We shared stories about the different nationalities and diversity of people who come together to play the game. It taught me that human beings are all very similar. We have an innate desire to be a part of stories, to dance, to love music and bright, shiny things – all the things that make us think and laugh and connect with each other. I made sure we had all those ingredients.”

Understand that risk doesn’t mean unsafe

2013-2015 Creative producer, Dark Mofo

“I was engaged by MONA the year before Dark Mofo to be part of the creative team. It was walking into another world and another way of doing things. They asked me to develop a community centrepiece. With my creative team, we came up with the idea for the Winter Feast and it has remained a really significant part of Dark Mofo ever since. A lot of my family live in Tasmania and my brother’s a chef so I understood the food culture there. I loved the fact that we could have open fires and nobody got hurt. While still taking every precaution, we could expand the audience experience into a food event that was unlike any other I’d been to anywhere in the world. Sometimes I think it helps to do something for the first time in a smaller place. Risk is a funny thing – for some people it’s open fires, for others it’s huge crowds.”

Be brave and take the leap

2015-present Gill Minervini Creative

“In some ways setting up my own consultancy was an obvious step but it was a massive leap in self-belief. For the previous few years I’d worked at the City of Sydney part-time and was building a range of other events. The City was happy to let me do that because it’s important to keep honing your skills. I was offered a contract to direct the opening celebrations for Barangaroo – it was three months of events in 2015. That was the tipping point that gave me enough self-belief to leave my job. Now when I look back, maybe I should have done it earlier. It’s eight years now and I’ve got better at working out my worth, though if you were to cost out every hour, no-one could afford you! It’s a two-way street. I get a lot out of what I do. The financial reward is only one part of it.”

Build trust and the sky’s the limit

1999-2015 Various creative director and producer roles, City of Sydney

“I went in on a three-month contract for the [Sydney 2000] Olympics and was there for nearly 15 years. That job taught me how to adapt to doing an event anywhere – once even on a roundabout. It also refined my skills in how to galvanise support for ideas – dealing with a politician is in some ways no different to working with a local community group or residents who are annoyed because you’re going to close their street for an event. I learnt from my mother that there are some things you will never change. She’d say, ‘Save your breath to cool your porridge and move onto something you can [change].’ The key to being successful is to articulate your vision in a really accessible way. When you do that it just takes one or two successful examples and you build trust. Once you have that, the sky’s the limit.”

Being yourself takes you a long way

2000-2004 Panellist, Beauty & the Beast, Network 10 and Foxtel

“[The late] Stan Zemanek was the first ‘beast’ I worked with. I was the resident lesbian and he was deliberately provocative but never homophobic, although you probably couldn’t do that show today. It honed my TV skills and refined my position on a lot of things – being provoked can open up the right to have your say. I think I was the only out lesbian on mainstream TV and I’d get letters from viewers about them coming out and from mothers saying that seeing me helped them to understand their gay daughters. Some young gay kids in Queensland started a fan club for me – how bizarre! I think having that visibility back then was important. It also reinforced to me that you get a lot further with being kind and being yourself. And it was fun. There was a parade of incredible women through that show. I’m very lucky to have been there.”

Make meaningful connections

1989-1992 Festival director, Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras

“This job changed my life. I had only been in Sydney for a couple of years, working in theatre. I was just 26 so the opportunity seems incredible now. They asked me to come for an interview and called me back that afternoon to say I had the job. I thought, ‘Gee, what do I do now?’ I’ve had a lot of jobs where I’ve learnt on my feet. They took a chance on someone they thought showed promise. I was given a very long rope and we created a serious arts and cultural festival running over three weeks. I’d never directed a festival but I come from Adelaide so I’ve always been a festival junkie and the Adelaide Festival has had a lot to do with where my life’s taken me. I understood inherently that connection with your audience is the most important thing.”

Image credit: Nic Walker

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