Is this too controversial?

As you know, the local experience advocates for pulling in visitors and customers with fun, interesting and creative ‘activations’ that create an experience to remember.

Over the weekend, the Castlemaine State Festival in Victoria did just that. And some things went wrong. People got angry. Complaints were made to the organisers, and the sponsors. Art work was actually defaced.

So the question is, are some things so controversial they are not worth doing? Should we risk it?

There are a couple of points to make on this. Firstly, anything can cause controversy. The things that are offensive to some, are harmless to others. In the Castlemaine example, it was a high school student’s art work stating that ‘Christmas is a lie’ that generated the heated response. Some saw it as a reference to Santa and destroying children’s dreams, some saw it as anti-Christian. I personally saw it as the artist providing their own opinion about the commercialisation of Christmas, which I was completely fine with, and apparently that was the intention.

Art makes you think. Art creates conversations, art inspires – sometimes in positive ways, sometimes negative.

And all of this is okay.

Think about what the original intention of the public art work or activity was. Generally it is to engage your audience. Engagement means they will be thinking, discussing, debating, enjoying and even complaining. It just might happen and you need to be prepared for it. Obviously you don’t want the residents taking up pitch forks against you (or using spray cans on teenagers’ work) but debate is good and healthy.

Editorial in the Bendigo Advertiser agreed that ‘The problem with this street art exhibition paste-up is that people were always going to jump to the conclusion that it was an attack on the religious meaning of Christmas. Seems like a very good learning experience for all concerned.’

There are opportunities in controversy to get people to think differently, explain the purpose of the work and perhaps even create a new engaging experience as a result. In my experience, if your team, and your supporters understand what you are trying to achieve, and the inherent risks that may come along with that, you can manage any controversy created. Just keep talking, keep the conversation going to take the heat out and provide the context.

When you are doing anything for the public, you will never please everyone. And you don’t need to, sometimes getting them talking is enough.

As Sir Cecil Beaton put it:

‘Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.’

Well done all the organisers, performers and sponsors of the event for putting on a world class show. To the teenager that created the stir, it’s fine, don’t worry… and it could be the start of a great career!

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