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Remaining boldly Brisbane in the face of a pandemic

Social connection amid physical distance: learnings from Brisbane Festival 2020’s delivery of a large-scale arts event during a pandemic.



Brisbane Festival is an annual three-week celebration of Brisbane’s personality, lifestyle and artistic and creative talent.

In September 2020, Brisbane Festival became one of the first organisations in the world to successfully and safely deliver a major, live performance event under COVID-19 restrictions.

Faced with interstate and international travel restrictions, theatre and venue closures and social distancing requirements that impeded both artistic development and execution, Brisbane Festival’s initial program could not proceed.

Artistic Director Louise Bezzina, backed by her team, the Brisbane Festival Board, Arts Queensland and other government and corporate partners, curated an entirely new program in a matter of weeks – a reimagined Festival that reflected the time.

With no guidelines or precedents directing how to run a major event during a pandemic, Brisbane Festival, led by CEO Charlie Cush, worked collaboratively with the Chief Health Officer and Queensland Government to establish a blueprint on delivering a COVID Safe festival.

The 2020 Brisbane Festival cemented Queensland’s position as a hub of innovation and creativity, paved the way for local arts recovery and repurposed key funding to provide employment for Queensland artists and arts workers at a time when work was scarce.

Led by the Festival’s ‘Boldly Brisbane’ vision, the Brisbane Festival team safely delivered a live program designed to surprise and delight audiences, reconnect communities, champion local artists and fill the city with music, art and hope.



When and where

Brisbane Festival ran from 4 – 26 September 2020.

Performances were delivered across 244 locations and reached all 190 suburbs of Brisbane.


Key Stats

  • 120 events programmed, including 101 free events
  • 28 new works commissioned
  • 1002 local artists and arts workers employed
  • 573 performances staged across 244 locations, reaching all 190 suburbs of Brisbane
  • Audience attendance of 1.9 million people
  • 38,000 visitors to Brisbane, generating economic growth estimated at $14 million
  • $1.55 million cash and $2.29 million in-kind support through sponsorship, grants and partnerships
  • A record $555,000 philanthropic support generated through the Festival’s Giving Program



The Queensland Government supports Brisbane Festival through Arts Queensland core funding to Major Brisbane Festivals.

The Queensland Government provided funding of $220,000 plus in-kind venue hire up to the value of $259,200 for the delivery of Working Title, a creative residencies program for the development of new Queensland work at the Judith Wright Arts Centre.



  • Brisbane Festival’s reimagined 2020 core pillars were:
  1. Visible beacons of hope
  2. Rich and self-determined First Nations multi-arts programming 
  3. Employment opportunities for local artists and arts workers
  4. Commission new work
  5. Bring art to the people of Brisbane across the largest footprint of any Australian festival
  • Brisbane Festival programmed some of the first productions in Brisbane theatres and performance venues in almost six months. It was critical to the industry’s recovery to reactivate these spaces and ‘turn the lights back on’, despite reduced audience capacity and production scale.
  • Brisbane Festival’s 2020 economic impact was estimated at $14 million with a strong flow-on effect stimulating the economic recovery of other industries and affiliated businesses such as catering and hospitality, transport and logistics, event hire and accommodation.
  • Brisbane Festival created a blueprint not only for staging a safe and successful major event, but for revitalising COVID-impacted industries, working closely with performing arts and live music venues to produce COVID Safe events, generate employment and reactivate venues.
  • Brisbane Festival conceived a Boldly Brisbane Artists initiative to support local artists. A campaign celebrating 20 of these Brisbane creatives and highlighting their projects ran through Brisbane Festival’s printed program and digital platforms.


Learnings and reflections

Boldly Brisbane: With the closure of international and interstate borders, Brisbane Festival focused on celebrating and highlighting unique, home-grown talent. Brisbane Festival’s ‘Boldly Brisbane’ vision was more than a response to the challenges of the 2020 pandemic, it was a deliberate intention that will drive the Festival’s progress into the future. It aims to instil the city with a sense of pride, the confidence to make audacious choices and to view global perspectives through a local lens. 

Strong relationships and partnerships: Securing the support of the Queensland Government, through Arts Queensland, and Brisbane City Council to present a reimagined Brisbane Festival in 2020 was a pivotal moment. Artistic Director Louise Bezzina, CEO Charlie Cush and the Brisbane Festival Board presented the major shareholders with an innovative and carefully considered vision. Their ‘Boldly Brisbane’ vision and longstanding and collaborative relationships with the major shareholders as well as cultural venues and organisations, sponsors and donors were the foundation of the locally-focused Festival.

Site-specific: Brisbane Festival’s reimagined program, coupled with ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, saw more performances in non-traditional venues, innovative use of space and new site-specific works. While there was creative freedom in activating non-traditional space, it remained just as crucial to the team to enliven and support traditional arts hubs and performance venues. As demonstrated in 2020, Brisbane Festival remains responsive and adaptive to the challenge of operating in a continued COVID environment.

Surprise and delight: The team found the opportunity to embed the Festival in the community by programming work across each of Brisbane’s 190 suburbs proved a powerful and exciting tool for engaging and welcoming new audiences. The legacy of this innovation will be in how these new audiences are nurtured and made to feel supported while finding a place for them to actively grow the Festival.

Stick to the rules: Brisbane Festival’s planning and programming decisions were based on current information, guidelines and restrictions, not on future predictions. For example, if audience capacity was restricted to 50 per cent, the Festival planned and budgeted for 50 per cent and did not assume restrictions would ease by opening night. Brisbane Festival’s reimagined 2020 program was planned while the city was in complete lockdown and only amended as restrictions were officially eased. 

No workaround: While the arts industry is built on a belief that “the show must go on”, Brisbane Festival adopted a strict edict that there were no workarounds in a pandemic. One small shortcut or slight bending of the rules could put audiences, staff and artists in jeopardy and lose the Festival’s trust, integrity and reputation in far-reaching and catastrophic results.

Stay festive: Despite strict rules and tightly controlled environments, Brisbane Festival wanted to remain festive, joyous and hopeful. The recruitment and training of front-of-house staff was key to engaging lightly and joyously with the public while ensuring rules were followed. Staff were recruited from top-tier customer-centric fields including airline cabin crew and hotel management and trained to offer warm welcomes and friendly guidance to visitors.

Keep it clean: The Brisbane Festival team found delivering a COVID Safe event hinged on three highly visible core practices:

  • Contact tracing
  • Physical distancing
  • Cleanliness, hygiene and sanitisation

The process of submitting details to a COVID register combined with active reminders to physically distance, visible sanitiser stations and staff engaged in frequent cleaning, gave audiences and visitors confidence and visual proof the Festival was a safe and hygienic event.


“It was such a great atmosphere with people cheering and having fun and it felt fantastic to get out and do something ‘normal’. Even though we were all socially distanced, we all felt connected, there was a real sense of community.” – Kristy Smith, patron

“The global arts community took interest, observing how Brisbane Festival celebrated the reawakening of the city after a difficult and demanding period of isolation by focusing on homegrown heroes, local luminaries and exceptional experiences.” – Belinda Seeney, The Big Idea (New Zealand)

“This work breathes hope for better days. It symbolises celebrating life and being positive… especially during this period.” – Florentjin Hofman, Messengers of Brisbane

“The 70 minutes really flew by and exposed how well planned and intelligent The Good Room co-creators are.” – Isabella Magee, The Courier-Mail (review of One Bottle Later)

“This is an amazing place to make work and there’s a really strong sense of support and community in Brisbane that I think is quite unique to other arts communities.” – Leah Shelton and Lisa Fa’alafi (Polytoxic), Snapshot

“Street Serenades was a great night of entertainment right at our front door! Topham St was alive with colour and live music enjoyed by all ages of our street.” – Terri Craig, patron

“Sponsorship was a hard decision this year but one of the best I made. I don’t think we would have survived without it.” – Claire Parviz, Spaghetti House

“In the background, Brisbane city was lit up with a pulsing laser beam show and ethereal music, hoping to offer solace, guidance and inspiration to the public." – Brittany Chain, Daily Mail Australia 

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented practices. With the self-proclaimed goal of ‘bringing people together to celebrate without encouraging crowd gathering’, the team scrapped its plans and devised a new schedule of socially distanced shows.” – Justine Landis-Hanley, The Guardian


Tips for others

Visual cues 

“Use visual cues to keep the festival front-of-mind when unable to program for central hubs or large-scale, mass-gathering events. Brisbane Festival programmed two major, free outdoor installations to signal the Festival was on and reaffirm that Brisbane is a city that believes in the arts: Messengers of Brisbane and Sunsuper Night Sky.”

Crowd dispersal

“Create clever ways to disperse crowds and discourage mass gatherings while providing city-wide installations. Walking circuits, digital maps and audio guides keep crowds moving and give them a deeper sense of interaction and involvement.”

Re-do the sums

“Financial forecasting is vital to staging a successful festival, especially during this unpredictable pandemic period. Multiple financial models are needed to plan for the various restrictions that may be in effect by the time you deliver the Festival. Planning for indoor and outdoor restrictions and carrying financial contingencies to consider these potential outcomes are crucial to the process.”

Clear communication

“Delivering a COVID Safe event requires collaboration across multiple industries, partners, authorities and experts. Keep communication clear, simple and concise, avoiding industry jargon and rhetoric. Listen attentively, ask questions if information is outside an area of expertise, prepare to negotiate and expect a degree of flexibility to ensure the safe delivery of the event.”


What next

Brisbane Festival 2021 will return from 3 – 25 September 2021.

Brisbane Festival 2021 will create an even deeper connection with local communities as part of the new initiative Street Serenades: At our Place, supported with Queensland Government investment of $350,000. Street Serenades: At our Place will support collaborations through eight neighbourhood and community centres across Brisbane and will deliver a series of 64 creative arts workshops in partnership with neighbourhood and community centres designed to bring together people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities in a celebration of local community identity and resilience.


Find out more

Brisbane Festival website 

Brisbane Festival twitter

Brisbane Festival facebook 

Brisbane Festival Instagram