WHEN Kate Britton is asked what makes Newcastle such a fertile creative community for arts and culture, she initially pauses.
After a moment or two to gather her thoughts, she's off and racing.
It becomes apparent that this Novocastrian done good is fiercely proud to have returned home for the first time in her professional life, having previously worked for the Campbelltown Arts Centre and Sydney's Art Month among others.
Britton's latest role as project manager for Newcastle's freshly-launched arts festival, New Annual, is especially rewarding.
The 10-day festival begins on February 12 and will bring a diverse range of creative arts to multiple venues across Newcastle.
There will be everything from Australia's only female prime minister Julia Gillard discussing women and leadership, to Something For Kate frontman Paul Dempsey performing an intimate gig at the Newcastle Art Gallery to live theatre, film, visual art and Indigenous storytelling.
"I know growing up and starting to go out it felt really accessible and easy to be part of it," Britton says of Newcastle's arts scene.
"If you go to bigger cities it can sometimes be harder to get a foot in the door. It's a really supportive and tight scene here, which is really nice. People have an interest in helping each other and going to each other's gigs."
When Britton was first appointed by the City Of Newcastle in August 2019 to establish a fringe-style cultural festival, experience taught her to identify the gaps in the arts scene and to begin conversations with the creatives in the community and their audience.
Britton estimates she had "120 coffees and face-to-face meetings" with stakeholders, plus hosted community engagement meetings.
Besides the copious hits of caffeine, it provided her with a clear picture of what New Annual should look like. The answer was very Novocastrian.
Similarly the New Annual is multi-art, kind of like a taster plate.Kate Britton
"We did the community engagement process when I first came in to try and reach the broader community and ask, 'What did you want to see from this kind of thing and what should we be delivering?', she says.
"The overwhelming response from the arts sector and the average punter was they wanted to support the local arts scene. They have an interest in the stories of Newcastle and I think we have a really interesting history here."
COVID-19, of course, had the unique ability to demolish even the best-laid plans. Initially New Annual was proposed for a springtime debut, with a major focus on promoting the festival to a national audience.
Interstate border closures and the re-emergence of coronavirus in Sydney during December means the maiden edition of New Annual is striving for a local Hunter-based audience. The plan is to eventually settle into a late-September-to-early-October timeframe.
"Long term we're hoping it'll become a real drawcard for the city and for cultural tourism," Britton says. "Arts and cultural tourism is a hugely growing field at the moment.
"Certainly for this festival with border closures and the Sydney situation, it's all been monitored very closely and the focus in the first instance will be about engaging our local audience and then looking at that relative close radius outside the COVID hotspots.
"Obviously the intention is to go further and further out with that promotion and try to bring people into the city each year."
Arts is a subjective medium. That's it's beauty. One's Picasso is someone else's indecipherable scribble.
Britton says New Annual is modelled on The Sydney Festival, which for the past 44 years has commissioned inspiring and innovative work from Australian artists every January.
What's made Sydney Festival successful, says Britton, is it's ability to appeal to a diverse audience.
"They're 40-odd years in, but initially it was the festival of Sydney," she says. "[They ask] what's happening here and how can we profile it and get more people to engage with it?
"Similarly the New Annual is multi-art, kind of like a taster plate. We've got bands, we've got theatre, we've got visual arts, and all these people who do these amazing things locally. We want New Annual to become a time of year when you can pass through and see a bit of everything."
In 2015 Britton curated Newcastle's This Is Not Art Festival or TiNA, which since 1998 has showcased the city's emerging and experimental art. COVID meant the four-day festival was postponed last October, however, TiNA is expected to return this spring when it will coincide with the second edition of New Annual.
The Newcastle Writers Festival will also return after a COVID sabbatical on September 24 to 26 and will run in partnership with New Annual.
Britton sees New Annual complementing TiNA and being the next logical step in the Newcastle arts scene for both artists and the audience, rather than competing against it.
"We have this great emerging and experimental festival that happens which has a great rep and lots of people know the city for," she says. "We want to continue to be able to engage people as they grow up and do other things and become significant artists, after they got their start at TiNA, and bring them back for New Annual.
"The discussions I've had with TiNA is about New Annual providing something that everyone can hopefully come and find something, and if they want to take that next step into something weirder, riskier and edgier, they can go speak to TiNA."
NEW ANNUAL HIGHLIGHTS
Julia Gillard: Women & Leadership, February 13, Wests NEX The former PM discusses her book Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons.
We Can Be Heroes: Live with Paul Dempsey, February 14, Newcastle Art Gallery The Something For Kate frontman performs an intimate gig to close the We Can Be Heroes exhibition.
Awkward - Catapult Choreographic Hub, February 11-13, Newcastle City Hall Follows the story of a bunch of distinctive personalities meeting for the first time.
Hazy Cosmic Jive artist showcase, February 12, The Lock-Up A celebration of homegrown talent from Newcastle's Hazy Cosmic Jive recording studio, featuring Amy Vee and others.
Wylaa Buuranliyn and Veara present Nourishing Waters, February 12-21, Newcastle Museum Incorporates music, narration, animation and storytelling to complement existing Indigenous cultural items at the museum.
Chalk the Walk, February 12-21, various locations throughout the CBD A temporary 3D artwork trail installed to illuminate the streets, featuring Central Coast's Jenny McCracken.
Photo of the Moon presents Wax Lyrical February 18, The Royal Exchange An ethereal night of music, storytelling and poetry from a handful of Newcastle's finest.
OMG WTF!, February 13, The Royal Exchange A late night romp with a mix of burlesque, circus, drag, sideshow and magic.