21 April 2021

National Folk Festival head moves on as deadline looms for 2022

| Ian Bushnell
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Helen Roben

Outgoing National Folk Festival general manager Helen Roben. File photo

The National Folk Festival has lost its general manager after a successful Easter event in Queanbeyan and as it attempts to attain some certainty from government about staging a full festival next year.

Helen Roben took the reins of the NFF in October 2019 and has guided it through the most turbulent time in its history, having to cancel, for the first time, two successive festivals due to the pandemic.

Her efforts to put the festival on a more secure and sustainable footing won plaudits but also drew fire from some.

Ms Roben is staying in Canberra and will remain connected to its music community as the new CEO of Music for Canberra, which oversees a range of youth and education programs, including the Canberra Youth Orchestra.

It is a bigger, year-round role that will provide more certainty for her, which has been in short supply during her tenure.

The NFF is now on the hunt for a replacement, while board member Lynne O’Brien, who has deep connections with the folk community and extensive arts management experience, including being a founding member of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, steps into the role on a temporary basis.

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NFF board chair Stephen Gallacher said that Ms Roben had capably steered the Festival through extremely difficult times.

He paid tribute to her organisational and financial management skills, which helped ensure the Festival’s survival during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Helen also conceived and managed the Good Folk Festival in Queanbeyan, creating the first significant opportunity for many folk performers to return to the stage,” he said.

“We are grateful for her hard work and dedication to the Folk Festival during a time of unprecedented challenges.”

While the Good Folk event in Queanbeyan has drawn praise from folk fans and artists alike, the future of a full festival next Easter remains in doubt as the government and the Chief Health Officer are unable to provide any certainty that it will go ahead, despite Canberra and most of of the nation being COVID-free, and thousands being able to attend football games and theatre events.

An event with a long lead time, the deadline is looming for a decision on whether a Festival can be staged.

Three years without a full national festival would be a devastating blow to the Easter event, which has been a major contributor to the Canberra economy.

As seen with the Byron Bluesfest at Easter, under current circumstances and restrictions, only one or two cases of COVID-19 could mean disaster for organisers.

Ms Roben had been keen for Good Folk to be replicated in the spring as a way to keep the Folk Festival brand prominent and as a vehicle to promote the main event at Exhibition Park, not to mention rewarding Queanbeyan for its support and use of its superb venues.

It would also spread the risk for the Festival.

Importantly, the event also made money and was a boost to the Queanbeyan economy.

It will be a new team to take the Festival into the future, with multiple ARIA winner Katie Noonan only recently appointed to the position of Artistic Director.

Ms Roben was approached for comment.

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