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Dancing at The Jacaranda Festival c.1937, photo courtesy of the Clarence River Historical Society.
Dancing at The Jacaranda Festival c.1937, photo courtesy of the Clarence River Historical Society.

Jacaranda in Blossom

Later this month Grafton will celebrate the spectacle of hundreds of lilac-blossomed trees lining the streets of the 78th Jacaranda Festival. The annual festival, which attracts about 50,000 people, is the oldest in Australia. Arts Northern Rivers spoke to Festival Manager, Janelle Ellem, and to Grafton Regional Gallery Director, Jude McBean about the history of the event, and its cultural significance to the arts in the region.

Janelle Ellem, Festival Manager, Jacaranda Festival

What is the Jacaranda Festival and when does it take place?

The annual Grafton Jacaranda Festival is the first of Australia's floral festivals. in 2012 the Festival officially starts with the Jacaranda Ball on Saturday October 20 and concludes with the Jacaranda Fun Run on Sunday November 4. The Festival is an opportunity for the community, both young and old to come together to celebrate the glorious sight of the beautiful Jacaranda Blooms.

The Jacaranda Festival celebrates its 78th Festival this year making it Australia's longest running festival. Tell us a bit about the history of the festival, when did it start and how?

The first Jacaranda trees were planted in Grafton in Pound Street in 1880 by local nurseryman Henry Volckers. Pound Street later became known as Jacaranda Avenue and was the venue for the first Jacaranda Festival. 

The annual Grafton Jacaranda Festival was inaugurated in 1934, during a period between the Depression and the Second World War. E.H. Chataway (known as "Jacaranda Bill") is credited with having been the founder of the festival. He was elected to the Grafton City Council in 1934 and made it his task to lead the preparations for the festival which launched on the evening of October 29, 1935.
Early festivals demonstrate how much the local community depended on this type of entertainment in the absence of today's modern-day home entertainment, technology and lifestyle recreations.

What do you believe has contributed to the longevity and tremendous success of the festival?

The Festival helps strengthen pride in our community by providing opportunities for new experiences and learning. Our regional town has been through a difficult time over the past few years; since the closing of the Telstra Call Centre in 2010, the Abattoirs in 2011 and the Grafton Jail in July 2012. The Festival is an opportunity to bring the community together in celebration in good times and in bad. It has tremendous social and cultural significance for the region. It attracts visiting tourists to the Clarence Valley region from both Australian and international markets.

Having grown up in Grafton you must have fond memories of the Festival over the years. Could you share a few with us?

My favorite memories of the Festival over the years would be the activities that take place on Jacaranda Thursday. As a young child I enjoyed participating in the Jacaranda Thursday schools display, even though we would have to practice for weeks in the lead up to the event! The schools display involved children dressing up in costume and dancing to a well-known song. The event was always a magnificent spectacle to watch. This year's Jacaranda Thursday will start with a free breakfast in Market Square followed by a whole day of entertainment. The shop owners get dressed up, there are markets and food stalls and it is a really fun day.

Jude McBean, Regional Gallery Director, Grafton Regional Gallery

There is a well established tradition in visual arts and crafts in the region. Tell us about some of the arts-based events and activities which have taken place historically, and will take place this year, as part of the Jacaranda Festival celebration.

The Jacaranda Festival has a long history of exhibitions by arts and crafts groups in the Clarence Valley such as quilters, woodworkers, doll makers and  ceramic and visual artists. The Craft at Seelands, which was part of the Festival for 27 years, featured many of the leading regional artists who are now represented in the gallery's regional collection. This year the 2012 Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Award (JADA) and its public programs of official opening, artists and judge talks, children's drawing activity in Market Square on Jaca Thursday are all part of the Festival. The winner of the previous JADA, Peter Alwast, is our artist in residence during the Festival. We will be presenting a solo exhibition of his recent work in the Gallery.

Aside from its wider regional cultural appeal, why is the Jacaranda Festival so significant to the Grafton Art Gallery? Perhaps you could share with us a little of the history of the Jacaranda Art Society, the Jacaranda Arts Prize Exhibition, and how that led to the establishment of the Grafton Regional Gallery.

The Jacaranda Art Society grew out of the desire of an energetic group of young people in 1961, who wanted to engage with contemporary art in the Grafton region. The new prize was presented as part of the Jacaranda Festival program.

Between each festival the Jacaranda Art Society presented a variety of events to raise funds for the annual Jacaranda Art Prize. These activities enlivened the social and artistic life of the Clarence Valley.

The Jacaranda Art Prize became the richest regional art prize in New South Wales, attracting entries by many of the leading artists of the day. The desire to exhibit and store the collection and display international, national and regional artwork drove them to raise funds to purchase a building to house the collection. The Grafton Regional Gallery was opened in 1988. The gallery gave a new identity to Grafton, recognising the rich cultural history of the region and allowed for the development of the gallery's programs, collections and infrastructure.

The Jacaranda Art Society (JAS) Collection was the founding collection of the Gallery. What does the JAS Collection mean to the local community?

The JAS Collection represents years of enjoyment and a sense of engagement to the many people in our community who followed the Prize each year. The collection signifies the rich tapestry of life in the Clarence Valley in the late twentieth century.

How has the Jacaranda Art prize developed over the years, how many artists enter, and what should audiences expect to see at this year's JADA Award? 

The Jacaranda Art Prize offered a $1,000 first prize in 1961, a significant financial prize at the time. By the 1980's the prize was attracting over 120 entries each year. During the 1990's there was a change in focus to a drawing award, during a period when drawing was having a renaissance as an area of major practice both nationally and internationally. By 2006 the Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Award was attracting over 430 entries from artists in every state and territory of Australia with a prize of $30,000.

From 418 entries, 51 finalists have been selected for the 2012 Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Award. Finalists come from all over Australia with regional artists well represented. Artists from the Northern Rivers Region include Katka Adams from Clunes, Henk Kaptein from Grafton and Dave Funnell from Copmanhurst. National artists include Berenice Carrington, Locust Jones, David Fairbairn and Wendy Sharpe.

The Jacaranda Festival was given the stamp of approval last year, as one of five celebrated floral festivals featured on a special commemorative series for Australia Post. How would you like to see The Jacaranda Art Society Collection remembered in the future? 

Next year the Grafton Regional Gallery celebrates 25 years of operation. To celebrate this the JAS collection will be the gallery's focus with a major collection and catalogue.

The 78th annual Jacaranda Festival takes place from 27 Oct 4 Nov 2012.
Go to www.jacarandafestival.org.au for further information.

The 2012 JADA will be on display from 26 Oct - 2 Dec 2012 at the Grafton Regional Gallery.
Go to www.graftongallery.nsw.gov.au for further information.