Melbourne International Festival, 1989, 1990 and 1991


Relentless, unyielding, totally committed and deliciously possessed. He was danger and delight rolled into one. And if occasionally exhaustion showed, it was soon forgotten in the maelstrom of ideas and opinions that emptied from his mind…I can think of no-one but John who has combined a searing belief in the importance of the arts with a practical ability to actually do it.

— Barry Kosky


In 1989 John Truscott was appointed artistic director of the Spoleto Festival, (now the Melbourne International Festival), following the departure of its founder, Gian Carlo Menotti. John’s festivals became renown for his championing of new, local work and the commissioning of gifted young artists like the landscape designer Paul Bangay (Botanica) and theatre director, Barry Kosky (The Knot Garden). As well as bringing to Melbourne many memorable productions; the Moscow Arts Theatre , Lloyd Newson’s DV8 and the Cullberg Ballet’s extraordinary reworking of Giselle among them, he dressed up the city in lights and fountains and flowers – one year he planted a whole cherry orchard in the Arts Centre’s Smorgon Plaza – and each year ensured that some element of the Festival remained to permanently enhance the city – the fountains in the moat of the National Gallery of Victoria and the lights in the gardens around the Arts Centre, on Flinders Street Station and along St Kilda Road.

The playwright, John Romeril, wrote during this time, ‘as an authentic son of this city you have pioneered for Melbourne a Melbourne-style festival. You have proved an international arts festival can also function as a populist event… Intruding the Festival into the public domain has meant fixing it in the popular imagination. Giving the Festival a street profile has meant positioning it as part of the civic calendar. In two whirlwind, adrenalin drenched years you’ve under-pinned this Festival with the kind of popular and political protection it would have been a decade trying to secure.’

John died, too soon, at the age of 57 following heart surgery and is buried in his beloved Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne under a white dogwood tree. At the time he died he was working with Arts Centre chief, Sue Nattrass, on a plan for the refurbishment of the Centre’s interiors to mark its 10th birthday. He was also, at the invitation of the City of Melbourne, working on designs for the reinvigoration of the city’s laneways and public spaces, an idea for which he had been sowing the seeds for much of his life.