Sound Shell Four Winds

Fundraising nous delivers world-class venue

3 April 2012 Artery

Sometimes big ideas do come true.  Just ask the organisers of the biennial Four Winds Festival on the far south coast of New South Wales.

Thanks to their initiative and persistence, and the advice of Artsupport Australia, a bush festival stage just outside Bermagui has been turned into a world-class music venue.

Festival Chair, Sheena Boughen and Director, Sian Morgan-Hall, came to Artsupport Australia with an idea to raise $800,000 to transform an ineffective and temporary stage into a permanent ‘Sound Shell’.

‘There were enormous problems with the stage as it was,’ said Sheena. ‘It’s a wind tunnel in that paddock and there were issues with turning the pages of music scores and things blowing down. Either that or the sun would affect the wooden instruments, and bit by bit the artists would retreat to the back of the stage to keep in the shade, or to get out of the rain.’

For 20 years the festival has brought new and existing classical music to the south coast of New South Wales, but along with the need for a better stage, the board had found itself thinking about what the event’s real purpose was.

‘We were wondering about our role in the community and the event’s contribution to the community,’ Sheena said. ‘We’ve always had an active art scene here, but we were starting to see our role as cultural facilitators for our region. We wanted it to be more than just another nice gig.’

The idea now expanded into a two-stage development, with the Sound Shell as part of a bigger cultural precinct.

‘I believed in it from the beginning, as did Neilma Gantner [a festival co-founder, writer and philanthropist]. Neilma’s son owns the festival land. We approached it with a nervous excitement because we had never embarked on a fundraising appeal and we knew we had to make it work,’ said Sheena.

The Four Winds team approached Philip Cox, an internationally-recognised architect behind many notable buildings, including the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, and the Sydney Football Stadium. Philip has a property near Bermagui, and offered to design the Sound Shell pro bono.

‘He created a beautiful, elegant design with an extraordinary high-tensile fiberglass canopy,’ Sheena said. ‘With a moat around the front and a dam behind, it will look like it’s floating on water.’

They then decided to get professional fundraising advice, and approached Louise Walsh, the founding director of Artsupport Australia.

‘We told her about our dream and she asked us what we wanted and she was incredibly enthusiastic. She pointed us towards a professional fundraising company that deals with philanthropic donations and we were away. The whole story is like a miracle.’

The pair decided to get the local community onboard by approaching the local council and the arts fraternity.

‘We consulted with them and we wanted them to be involved as partners. We knew we had to have more than just the festival organisers saying it was a good idea. We knew we had to be facilitators.’

By now it had been two years since the initial idea, and next on the dynamic duo’s to-do list was an approach to Arts NSW. They applied for a capital grant and received $99,000 in seeding money.

‘We had attracted some private donors by then too,’ Sheena said. ‘They gave us a “challenge grant”, meaning that for every dollar we’d raise they would match it. So as soon as we got that $99,000, it was doubled.’  

At the 2010 Four Winds Festival, held over the usual three days at Easter, they launched a public appeal with the help of brochures and displays. In the first hour, a local woman handed over $50,000.

‘We took everything from $2 and up – we wanted everyone to feel they were part of the success. We did everything we could and got to the point where we had raised around $700,000, and we thought we’d exhausted all our options,’ said Sheena.

The board arranged some small events in Melbourne, Canberra and Bermagui and raised a little more money. The festival’s website was constantly updated to show that the appeal was still active and that money was still coming in.

Then came a huge break. The local federal Member of Parliament mentioned that there were grants available from the new Regional Development Australia Fund.

In 2011 the fundraisers applied for the balance of money needed to finish the Sound Shell, an accompanying pavilion, an access road, and other facilities such as water harvesting and lighting that would make it a fully fledged cultural precinct that would attract musicians from around Australia and overseas.

Their successful application and a grant of $1.67 million meant the Sound Shell could be up and running in time for the 2012 Festival, the event’s 21st anniversary. Sheena predicted that the entire project would be finished by September 2013.

‘My advice to other groups with big plans is not to wait until you have all the money. Keep preparing as if it was going to happen,’ she said.

Artistic director of the 2012 Festival, Genevieve Lacey, commissioned a whole suite of new work to celebrate the birth of the Sound Shell.

‘It’s extraordinary. I think in so many ways the new shell is like a tangible manifestation of a dream this community has had for a long time,’ she said.

‘The community is passionate about music. It’s part of their lives and the Sound Shell will literally stand as testimony to that, a physical reality.’

‘It will also give the local community a sense of pride and confidence. Like the Sydney Opera House, a building can transform a community.’  

Four Winds Festival, 6-8 April 2012


Image: Four Winds Festival Sound Shell. Credit: Heide Smith