How Format’s Founders Are Leading the Future of Festivals

Roya Sachs, Elizabeth Edelman, and Mafalda Millies marry art, music, and technology at the annual festival in Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Flaming Lips perform at Format art, music, and tech festival alongside "Soundsuits" by the artis...
The Flaming Lips perform at Format art, music, and tech festival alongside "Soundsuits" by the artist Nick Cave.

During the last days of September, a spirited crowd of creatives and local festival-goers descended upon Bentonville, Arkansas to experience the inaugural year of Format, an art, music, and technology festival. The event is the brainchild of Triadic, a creative house and cultural engine founded by Roya Sachs, Elizabeth Edelman, and Mafalda Millies, who created the company in 2018 alongside their partners at C3 Presents, Charles Attal, and Charlie Walker.

When the trio first came together, Millies was working for C3 as its creative director under Attal and Walker, the masterminds behind such heralded festivals as Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Attal and Millies began discussing their own dream: to create a new type of festival that combined music, technology, and art that would inspire all ages to create a platform for unique multidisciplinary experiences. Millies and Attal brought on Edelman, previously executive director at the Global Citizen Festival, to help them build out the concept further. During that time, Millies, Edelman and Sachs were launching Triadic, and Attal proposed a merger to create Format.

The annual event invites top-notch musical acts (cue: Phoenix, Nile Rogers, the War on Drugs, and Moses Sumney) and artists from around the world to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where they work in dialogue with each other amid a sprawling green landscape. The festival consists of a variety of carefully curated worlds in which music and art fuse at any moment; the Flaming Lips performed as Nick Cave’s Soundsuits danced across the stage, and guests enjoyed an experimental audiovisual set by Seth Troxler before heading over to experience the debut of PAT, Jacolby Satterwhite’s multilayered video and live performance piece produced by Performa.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff marching band performing with Nick Cave’s Soundsuits.

Photographed by Pooneh Ghana

The Flaming Lips performing on stage with the soundsuit creatures.

Photographed by Roger Ho

“In the early days, we were thinking about how we wanted to set Format apart from other music and art festivals—how we wanted technology to be represented, and how we didn’t want the art to just be decorative,” Millies tells me over the phone from Vienna. It is precisely this multidisciplinary cohesion that puts the festival in a category of its own. W spoke to the trio about the ins and outs of putting together a first-year event that will surely change the game for festivals to come.

What was the most challenging part of curating Format?

Roya: When you’re curating an experience within a space or a gallery, you can control how the audience walks through the room and engages with the work. With Format, we had over a hundred different experiences and no control over the journey and engagement of the audience, which was our biggest challenge. But in the end, that’s also where the magic lies. Watching students from the University of Arkansas sit through a Jacolby Satterwhite experimental live show (that is otherwise shown in museums), or a local sixty-year-old dancing to a salsa band that had never left Colombia before, was by far the most rewarding part.

Doug Aitken, New Horizons.

Photographed by Grant Hodgeon

What kind of demographic did you hope to attract to this festival?

Mafalda: We really didn’t know what kind of an audience to expect. We wanted to attract people with our overall curation—entice with headliners as much as the unknown. Our lineup was definitely tailored to a slightly older demographic than your traditional festival, but was aimed at bringing together a real mix. We knew the majority was going to be regional—meaning from northwest Arkansas—but were also hoping to attract a mixed crowd from all over the country and beyond. The atmospheric turnout exceeded our hopes: Children learning and interacting with art during the daytime, niche music and performance art lovers interspersed with diehard techno fans in the late hours. I was giving a curatorial tour to three families, and as I was explaining who DJ Richie Hawtin was, one of the fathers interrupted me and said, “You don’t have to tell me who Richie Hawtin is, why do you think I’m here?” The weekend was full of surprises and moments like this.

Justin and Jonah, Next Door, Nova Heat

Photographed by Pooneh Ghana

Elizabeth: Our dream was to have all ages and all types of people who really appreciated the art, and came because they had heard of one artist or musician, but ended up discovering all this other creative output. This was the magic of what we were hoping to build with Format, and what we hope people will come back for: this sense of communal spontaneity.

You booked such an impressive roster of visual artists for a first-year festival. How did you go about securing this caliber of creatives? Did you already have a network in place?

Roya: The fear of rejection doesn’t bother us. We thought, let’s shoot for the stars and see what happens. Mafalda, Elizabeth, and I all have backgrounds in the arts so we leaned on our existing network. In some cases we already had a relationship, and in others we sent out-of-the-blue emails directly to the artist and asked if what we were doing was of interest.

I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from Arkansas. Why did you decide to throw the festival there?

Elizabeth: When Charles and I first connected with Olivia [Walton] about Format, we had been looking for a location that had a strong connection to arts and culture. Olivia was very interested in the arts, and Bentonville is also the home of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, so we always had [the city] in the back of our minds. We were looking for a festival site and a partner who was not just financially invested, but also emotionally dedicated. When we visited Olivia and the team in Bentonville, we fell in love with Sugar Creek—our site, which sits in a beautiful valley along a creek only five minutes from the center of town.

Photographed by Ismael Quintanilla III
Photographed by Ismael Quintanilla III

In New York and London, we have access to exceptional programming that exists in unconventional spaces, but there are so many other parts of the world where this needs to be. We need to democratize art and make it fun and enticing, and also make the artists feel like they can do something different when they may not have the opportunity to do so elsewhere. Curating Format, there were a lot of musicians that felt really lucky to be collaborating with artists in this way, and to be able to bring us ideas that other people have not been interested in backing because they’re too risky, with no financial upside.

There were some unimaginably intricate installations and stages at the festival. Was there anything in particular that you conceived for the festival that, in the beginning, you could not have imagined how it would come together?

Mafalda: Yes. We built The Cube stage from scratch, and seeing that come to life was definitely one of the most thrilling experiences. It began when Roya and I doodled up what we wanted it to look like and how we wanted it to be a different kind of venue—a striking, enclosed structure from the outside and an augmented 4-D sound experience from the inside. How the exterior artist-wrapped installation would look, feel, and transpire from day to night, were all brought to question. How would the light pass through the material? What would the atmosphere be like when it was multitiered?

The Cube, by artist Uman

Photographed by Grant Hodgeon

Roya: The Nick Cave Soundsuit collaboration was without a doubt one such project. We had spent months speaking to our headliners, pitching the collaboration, finding the right song, timing the entrances, engaging the musicians, and keeping in line with safety regulations. We didn’t have any rehearsals so it was all or nothing. Seeing Nick Cave behind the scenes poking his head out to see the lead singer from Flaming Lips, impromptu serenading one of the soundsuit creatures in front of thousands of people, was unplanned magic.