Spotlight Features

Director's Spotlight: Hay Festival CEO Julie Finch

Director's Spotlight: Hay Festival CEO Julie Finch

Introducing the people shaping the literary festival world.

This week the spotlight is on Julie Finch, the new CEO of the Hay Festival, the leading cultural event in the UK described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as “The Woodstock of the mind.” Here Julie tells us about a career steeped in books and culture:

I am lucky to have grown up in a small village with a library offering access to a wide range of books from an early age, which spurred my interest in the world. A career in the arts has been enormously enriching, having had the opportunity to develop two major museum projects, Boola Bardip, the new Museum for Western Australia and M-shed in Bristol, along with other senior roles. Developing concepts for new museums is akin to writing a book, compiling research, opinions, facts, drawing on archival material, and records from other cultural venues and capturing the story of a city or state and its people. Listening, observing, convening and finally weaving the narrative

GAOLF: How long have you been with the Festival?

JF: A month. It is new but so full of potential.

How would you describe your professional background? Have you been involved in the literary festival scene previously? Or in the book world?

My career has been developed through a cross-disciplinary approach to culture and the arts; formerly as a council member of the National Council for Art Council England, and a member of the National Lottery Heritage Fund Committee, and through working across the arts to develop cultural organisations. Literature has been a constant thread throughout. I enjoy storytelling in many forms, through festivals, theatre, journalism, books, archives, research and the spoken word. To me, festivals have always been a place where the celebration of story, fact and fiction enriches both knowledge and the imagination, enabling the release of potential in an individual.

What do you love about the litfest world?

Increasingly, society is looking to writers to aid solutions to the problems of contemporary society, to navigate the world or help soften its edges. Literary festivals provide the civic space to explore identities as individuals and communities, essential to the way we live now and into the future.

What would you like to see more of at Festivals?

There is a real need to diversify audiences, to be more representative of society, to develop the audiences of the future. We must address the interests and needs of wider audiences, I would like to see more young people at literary festivals – not necessarily just engaging with children’s authors, but through a more integrated engagement with authors from all backgrounds and interests.

What sets your Festival apart?

From our border town home of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, Hay Festival has now travelled to more than 30 locations around the world in the past 36 years. This cross-pollination and exchange run through all we do as we continue to grow and develop with a global outlook.

What is your favourite festival memory?

I have been attending Hay Festival and others for many years now. My best memories are when the audience and panel sync in conversation – a kind of magic happens, which moves people emotionally and intellectually, changing perspectives, opinions and lives.

Aside from Covid-19, what has been your biggest challenge?

Working in the cultural sector is a challenge whether within a large or a small organisation. We need to really understand how people can engage with festivals; the challenges during the pandemic are akin to the challenges we face in reinventing them for a changed society in real-time – placing audiences front and centre has to be at the heart of what we do.

If you could have a festival panel featuring any authors dead or alive, who would you have and what would the topic be?

Jane Austen, Laura Bates, Mary Wollstonecraft and Tawakkol Karman on gender equality.

What is the last book that you read and what are you looking forward to next on your reading list?

The last book I read is Untold Microcosms: Latin American Writers in the Archives of the British Museum and it is the result of a year-long Hay Festival project in partnership with the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research at the British Museum, offering writers a chance to disrupt the narrative of the museum’s collections. It was quite poignant that I read this whilst in Mexico attending Hay Festival Queretaro.

The next book on my list is  Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo.

Are there any authors we need to know about from your region?

  • Zillah Bethell’s The Shark Caller is a spell-binding story of friendship, forgiveness and bravery
  • National Poet of Wales Hanan Issa’s retelling of The Mabinogion, The Mab
  • Any of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, all of which are essential reading at some point in life.

Do you have a favourite literary quote?

“It’s much better to do good in a way that no one knows anything about it” — Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Anything else you’d like to tell us? 

A message of hope for the future: The festival sector can pull together as a community, to support each other, pool ideas and discover new ways of working. This we must do, with a generosity of spirit, to combat the difficult times and enjoy the best times.