Interview with Scott O’Hara – Event Manager

Scott O’Hara – Director, Arts Development, Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA)

Scott O’Hara is a professional arts manager with 12 years’ experience. His prior positions include foundation CEO of CCDNSW; various positions at the Australia Council for the Arts; a range of administrative and teaching positions in the visual arts and music education fields; Board member of Regional Arts NSW; and member of the NSW Ministry for the Arts Community Cultural Development Committee. He is a volunteer director on the Boards of CINEWEST Ltd and Arts Training NSW (ATNSW). He has studied ancient history and archaeology and holds a Master of Management in Arts Management. Scott has also taught arts management, policy and legislation at Macquarie University. Scott is currently employed as the inaugural Director of Arts Development at Sydney Olympic Park. He is responsible for coordinating and developing concepts for all arts and cultural activities delivered by SOPA, and for managing the Arts Development Unit and its artist and community programs. Some of the major arts events delivered at the park include the Sydney Festival opening (2004 and 2005); Sydney Dreaming; the largest exhibition of ArtExpress with a focus on new media; the outdoor film festival Short Soup; and the Music by Moonlight concert series featuring the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, OzOpera, James Morrison and the Argentinian tango quintet 34 Punaladas.

Who are the main stakeholders for events art Olympic Park?

The range is almost endless. It goes from the NSW Government, who have invested very significant amounts of capital into the park and need it to be a success, through to the community level: residents in nearby Newington Village and other surrounding suburbs; the users of our venues including Bicentennial Park; and the organisations based on the site, including their employees. Other stakeholders are the artists involved, the hirers of our venues and sponsors. We usually have other arts organisations as partners in our events, and we need to be mindful of their stakeholders as well. In many ways, the park is a regional centre. In the case of the Sydney Festival opening events, our main stakeholder (other than the festival organisation itself!) was the audience. As the major free event of the festival, that audience was effectively the general public across the whole of Sydney. Our combined attendance across the two years of around 100,000 people reflects that.

Do you consider anyone stakeholder more important than another?

In general, no, but when it comes to a particular event, a particular group may have a more important stake in it. In particular, local versus regional events present different levels of engagement with the stakeholders, so our priority group for one event may be barely a factor in another.

Do you consider that Olympic Park has a host community, or is Olympic Park just a public space for anyone to use?

One of the most interesting challenges in the development of a new town at Sydney Olympic Park is that we are developing arts and cultural life, and a character prior to the resident community actually being here. At the moment, no, we don’t essentially have a ‘host’ community for most of our events, but we are very interested in the idea of making the public domain and hireable facilities at the park available for particular communities to gain a sort of ‘temporary ownership’ over the precinct. We are seeing this very much with some events we host for particular ethnic communities, such as Arabic Carnivale and the Brazilian Ritmo Festival. On the other hand, we work closely with the community at Newington Village and the rest of the Auburn local government area, [especially] when we put on public activities such
as Australia Day celebrations and our Christmas Carols by the Cauldron event. They are very much events ‘of’ our local community of Auburn. As residents come to the precinct, these will become their events as well.

What criteria do you use to judge the feasibility of an event?

The most important criteria for any event and I have applied this to all my previous work, not just Sydney Olympic Park, is:

  • Will this event help to achieve our objectives? You can’t hope to answer that question unless you have put considerable time and effort into identifying those objectives and planning your strategies for achieving them. You need to have a vision and determine if your event idea will help you to achieve it. In the case of Sydney Olympic Park, while some of our stakeholders are really only interested in how many visitors the park has, our arts and cultural objectives are quite different. We are working towards the park becoming a place with a unique creative spirit, responsive to its surroundings and physical characteristics and engaged with its community. It will be the focal point of a new and exciting style of artistic expression for Sydney, and a place where established and emerging artists and communities work together, generating a lively and vibrant character. Our primary interest in events are those which will provide opportunities for the exploration of identity; a unique sense of place and vibrancy in the public domain; and the development of a creative community, with creative outcomes that are recognised nationally and internationally. In practice, this means that a lot of very popular, mainstream events really won’t help us to meet our key objectives.

Other important criteria are:

  • Is it consistent with how we want to be perceived? To answer this question you have to have undertaken significant thought and planning, maybe even developed a whole marketing plan. You need to know what image and attributes you want to have. In the case of Sydney Olympic Park, we have developed some brand attributes, which are a kind of arts ‘finetuning’ of SOPA’s broader values. They are concepts of ‘innovative, authentic, forward-looking, participatory and inclusive’. Obviously, no single event is going to achieve all of these criteria — something which is forward-looking, innovative and authentic to a particular ethnicity, for example, is likely to be exclusive rather than accessible to a wide audience. It is more a case of assessing whether or not it is consistent with at least one of these values, and — more importantly — if it will assist you in being seen by others as having these attributes. If you are choosing between possible events, you might go for something which demonstrates one attribute very strongly or one which reflects a couple of them. It depends on your priorities.
  • Is there an audience/market for this event? What do they want to see? Will they come to your venue? How many of them are there? Is the venue the right size? Which promotional strategies will reach them and can you afford them? While I mentioned that our focus is not on drawing large audiences to mainstream events, we still can’t afford to put expensive events before small audiences because high costs per head can’t be justified with public funds. Ideally, we want events a bit different to what is on offer elsewhere that will appeal to a mainstream audience and events which push the boundary a little further but do still have an audience of reasonable size who will want to attend.
  • Can we deliver it effectively? You need to consider more than if you have a suitable budget for the event. Do you have the skills and expertise? Do you have the physical resources? If you need contributions from others, can you obtain them? Can you manage the internal and external relationships required?

And one which is very important if you are working in bureaucracy or a large organisation like the Sydney Olympic Park Authority is:

  • Do we have enough time? It’s not just the time needed to mount and promote the event. Can we get the necessary approvals far enough in advance? Do we need to mount a budget bid by a certain deadline? How much notice will potential sponsors need? When is the venue available? When do event partners finalise their schedules?

Often you really need to be brainstorming your ideas as much as 18 months ahead of the actual event date. I am currently working on an event that has taken over six months just to finetune the concept, sign up the artist and gain the approval of the Board to mount the event. We are four months behind schedule on approaching sponsors which may threaten the viability of the event altogether.

What unique characteristics does Sydney Olympic Park have and do they present additional challenges?

We have a huge abundance of open space, which presents a lot of challenges around managing people, about events being large enough to fill the space yet remain affordable, and around the issue of trying to create any kind of intimacy. We also have 420 acres of parkland, some of which we hope to use for art and cultural activities, but these are governed by a very restrictive section in the Sydney Olympic Park Authority Act, which creates a significant number of additional hoops for us to jump through. Another unique challenge is the fact that we have very little in the way of through traffic or passing trade— especially compared with, say, a CBD location. We have some unique venues and one of our most important functions is growing awareness of them so that eventually other people are bringing their events here on a regular basis. For example, when we mounted ArtExpress in the Newington Armory part of our parklands, we had to deal with the issue of drawing people to a totally unknown and unvisited precinct. In fact, it’s a precinct that, up until that time, was closed to the public with security fencing and boom gates, the works really. We also had to contend with the fact that while the park as a whole is well served by public transport, there was no direct link to that specific part of the parkland. We addressed this issue by securing a transport sponsor, Westbus, who provided us with a shuttle-bus link between the venue, the railway station and the ferry wharf at cost price. It was very effective, with 4000 people visiting the
exhibition from a base-level visitation of zero!

Who are the key members on your events team? What are their roles?

Our roles are very clear because we are split across a number of units within SOPA. One of the main issues we have is communication across the business units in relation to coordinating an event really well. In the Arts Development Unit, I am assisted by the Manager, Arts Programming, and we are responsible for concept, design, development, planning etc, and in delivering small-scale new events. Then we have our Events team, who are more directly responsible for all of the event management and delivery functions including logistics, staging, contracting, safety and so on. Staff from SOPA’s Marketing division undertake the promotion and other marketing functions, while our Visitor Services team delivers customer-focused services like liaison, assistance with directions, etc. Finally, we have an Urban Design team who are involved in temporary way-finding, instructional signage and the appearance of the site as a whole.

Do you brainstorm for every event and can you give some insight into those sessions?

Our brainstorming sessions generally don’t include the whole cross-unit team as it is virtually impossible to get everyone together! Essentially the Arts Development Unit brainstorms initial event concepts, and we spend most of the time throwing out ideas as most possible events are either unviable with our resources or do not really progress us towards our objectives. The few that make it through the initial process are then further developed with a focus on who our potential delivery partners can be, and how we will get the audience to the park. Once we have an event concept approved, the other parties come in and the brainstorming focus is on how to realise the concept and achieve delivery of the event. Often, however, these sessions refine and further develop the concept, and team members usually bring in all sorts of great ideas. We have also tried some initial sessions with representatives of our stakeholder communities. Progress on this area has been a little slow to date, however, because the participants are generally trying to get a handle on the broader Sydney Olympic Park project and can’t yet envisage where we are going. Over time, however, these will become increasingly valuable sessions for us.

Do you identify suitable media partners for events or do they come to you?

At this stage of the game, it is very much up to us to make the approach. When we do look to a media partner, it is with a target audience in mind. We can’t afford to be getting a message out to the mass market, so we will look at specific print or radio outlets in terms of who their audience is and approach the best fit. WSFM was our media partner for Music by Moonlight because we were looking at a general audience in terms of interest, but the Western Sydney geographic community as our target market. That’s their core listening audience so it was a good fit. So once your event is conceptualised and planned, do you hand it over to the other parts of your organisation for delivery? Not entirely. We obviously need to stay involved by monitoring the implementation and stepping in if the delivery gets away from the concept (or, conversely, if the concept proves undeliverable), managing stakeholders and delivering what we’ve promised to the sponsors. We are often involved in the actual delivery some way or another. As delivery gets underway, however, our main role is evaluating the event. If you plan or even start undertaking your evaluation after the event is over, it is too late. Evaluation is an important tool to be utilised for assessing all aspects of an event and to assist in planning for future events and partnerships. You actually need to plan your evaluation right at the stage of planning your event, so that you have enough time to clearly determine the purpose of the evaluation, what processes will be involved, the resources needed, what your event is meant to achieve, how you can measure if it has succeeded, what your stakeholder expectations are and how you can identify if you met them, and what is going to happen to — and as a result of — your findings.