Interview with Margret Meagher, Project Director, Hello Koalas Festival by Alison Houston.
Margret, you have been organising the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail now for nearly 4 years, since it launched in September 2014. Did you expect the Trail to be such a success?
When we started planning the Hello Koalas idea back in 2011, it seemed a long way to becoming a reality. I was lucky to gather a small group of committed people who fell in love with the idea too and away we went.
With seed funding from Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and then lots of local sponsors coming on board, plus an amazingly talented group of artists to work with, it seemed to come together well, but there were challenges along the way.
What were the most difficult challenges?
The first one was obviously taking that simple idea and exciting people’s imagination and resolve to make it real. We were inspired by a sculpture trail in the UK – Larkin with Toads – which enabled us to ignite people’s interest through its proven success, winning Silver at the Visit England Tourism Awards, beating events like the Grand National! The manager helped us on our journey and remains a great supporter from afar.
The second real challenge was the practical application of the idea. How to create the design for the koala sculpture. Where to have it manufactured in fibreglass in Australia. How to fund such a massive undertaking, with over half a million dollars required to get the Trail launched. What materials to use to ensure the sculptures stayed looking their best for a long period of time.
In terms of the sculpture design, we were lucky to work with the Koala Hospital, our principal project partner, to create a digital design that is an authentic representation of a Port Macquarie koala and our temperate climate – not too big and furry like they are in Victoria or the less furry koalas in Queensland!
The third challenge turned out to be, in fact, a delightful discovery. When we put out a call for artists to submit designs, we were overwhelmed by such high quality applications, from many artists, primarily from the Mid North Coast. It was a coup for us to find so many artists on our doorstep and we continue to work with them today as the Trail continues to grow, with new sculptures like Professor Eugene Eucalyptus at CSU.
Did you plan for the Trail to go for so long?
That’s a good question, because most public art trails run for a relatively short period of time – around two months – and then the sculptures are sold off for conservation funding or arts programs.
I wanted to create something more permanent for my home town, so while we launched the Trail with the plan for it to stay in place for 18 months, we secretly hoped that the Trail would become a permanent attraction.
We planned for that eventuality, sourcing the most UV resistant and best quality fine art paints, manufacturing the fibreglass sculptures to be resilient and withstand harsh weather conditions and excessive public handling, reaching out to the local community so they felt the Trail was their pride and joy, while encouraging visitors to come to our area and spend money while following the Trail!
Our sponsors are the real heroes of this project, because their support has made the Trail possible for everyone to enjoy as a free public attraction. Most of our sponsors have been be committed to the project from day one.
Now we are ranked #3 of 76 Things to Do in Port Macquarie and #1 Landmark on TripAdvisor, the travel website. We have also been awarded their 2018 Certificate of Excellence, for the third year in a row.
Do you need to keep inventing ways to connect with locals and tourists to keep people intrigued in the Trail?
We established the annual Hello Koalas Festival last year around the June Long Weekend as a potential NSW Regional Flagship event.
We have introduced the “Caring for our Koalas” conference, as a highlight of this year’s Festival, to engage the local community and people from around Australia who are committed to koala conservation.
Conference delegates include four conservation experts from Taronga Zoo, the head of Koala Health Hub, Sydney University, a Queensland academic presenting community engagement and education using koalas as a case study, Planet Ark’s Make It Wood campaign manager talking about sustainable timbers in everyday life and the producer of the “Environment and Wellness” program, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Cheyne Flanagan from the Koala Hospital is a keynote, along with Rebecca Montague-Drake from Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, demonstrating how locally we are truly caring for our koalas to ensure their preservation in our community.
The decline in koala populations is a major issue in Australia and the conference will profile the new NSW Koala Strategy to combat this decline around our state.
The diverse Hello Koalas Festival program looks like a lot of fun for people of all ages. Do you have any tips?
Lady Lola The Dancing Koala, designed by Francessca O’Donnell, is the Festival Queen, so what better way to celebrate koalas than have an ABBA Tribute MamaMia Music and Dance Party. Ballerinas from Port Macquarie Performing Arts will open the Panthers show on 8th June, with a specially choreographed version of Dancing Queen. Can you hear the drums, Fernando? I certainly can!
Thank you Margret.
Hello Koalas Festival
7th – 11th June 2018.
Phone 0416 641 482.