Lisa Dempster, World-Class Festival Boss

As Melbourne’s creative community has come to expect from Lisa Dempster’s programming, this year’s MWF is bold, lateral, and unflinching, bringing leaders in books, writing and ideas from around Australia and the world together in Melbourne.

A leader in Australia’s arts and culture sector, Dempster has added her trademark social media engagement to MWF since joining the team in late 2012.

MWF is the second major literary festival that Dempster has directed. Before accepting the Director role at MWF, she spent three years as Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, taking that organisation to a whole new level.

While running EWF on a shoestring budget and mostly with a staff of two, Dempster revolutionised audience engagement, not just for the arts, but for events in general. Think back to how events used Twitter in 2012. (Hint: there’s not much to remember.) That was the year Dempster’s #EWF12 hashtag boasted engagement of 1200 different accounts, and averaged two tweets a minute. Utilising her professional network to rally influential Twitter users, she brought this kind of intense live-tweeting previously only seen at tech events like South By South West (SXSW) to EWF.

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And digital engagement was just one of the ways Dempster revolutionised EWF. In three years, she reshaped the organisation, expanding the festival to 11 days, creating EWFdigital, securing funding for additional core staff like a General Manager, and transforming the organisation into a national advocacy body for emerging writers across Australia.

She also instituted the Roadshows that take EWF events to other cities; instigated and nurtured relationships with literary festivals around the world, sending some of Australia’s best emerging writers to Indonesia, India, and United Arab Emirates; developed the Monash University Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing; created and published a freelance pay rates database; developed a nationally‑focussed blog by and for emerging writers; and introduced a rigorous accessibility policy including Auslan interpetation.

Plus, you know, increasing IRL attendance from 6,000 to 11,300.

In amongst all of this, Dempster created the Digital Writers Festival — possibly the first digital writers festival in the world — and directed the first two while simultaneously directing EWF. She then secured funding to pay a separate director to run DWF from 2013, releasing future EWF Directors from that role and creating another opportunity for emerging arts managers. Ever since, DWF has been setting the tone for digital engagement of arts audiences around the world.

But that’s just the day job.

Dempster takes her role as industry and community leader seriously, sitting on several boards and committees, personally advocating for the rights of writers and others who work in books and ideas, judging literary competitions, mentoring writers and arts managers, curating exhibitions, and advising organisations all over town. She speaks at festivals and conferences in Australia and around the world. She is a relentless advocate for diversity of all types, running a genuinely feminist and otherwise inclusive organisation and program.

Dempster is particularly influential and sought after for advice within the literary sector. Barely a day goes by that a senior executive in the sector doesn’t seek her out for advice on organisational strategy, partnerships, career decisions, or professional relationships.

It’s time for us to see what she has for us this year. See you there.