How I got my start

Madeleine Dore

Successful creatives illuminate their career trajectories to reveal insights into starting out in the arts industry and keeping up momentum.
How I got my start

Image: pexels.com

When scrolling through a curated Linkedin page or reading a well-crafted artist bio, it can difficult to pinpoint how someone we admire first got their start. With the difficulties and learning curves rarely advertised, it’s not difficult for our minds to assume it was success after success.

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Yet there are always stumbles and set-backs throughout our careers. Even the most esteemed in the arts industry will tell you they’ve been there – from finding it difficult to get a foot in the door, overcoming imposter syndrome, or balancing work experience with study and a job. Much like sharing our failures can help “balance the record” and encourage others to pick themselves back up, illuminating the realities of the very beginning of a successful career can inspire those starting out to persevere.

Read more: CV of failures by arts leaders

Curators, directors, artists, and inspiring individuals share how they got their start in the arts industry and their tips for managing the ups and downs, seizing opportunities, and more.

Brett Sheehy AO, Artistic Director, Melbourne Theatre Company

From law to theatre

I studied law at University of Queensland and dropped out several times while doing my articles with a law firm, but picked up credits in law, literature, philosophy and psychology, and then fled to Sydney. I landed two part-time jobs there – office cleaning, and gardening.

manoeuvred my way into theatre reviewing for the now-defunct Sydney City Express newspaper by sending the editor two reviews I’d written of shows I’d seen, but thought his paper had reviewed poorly. I then scored a job ushering for the opening season at The Wharf Theatre and leveraged my theatre reviewing to get an interview for an STC position as an Assistant to the Director. I had four more jobs at STC, specialising in dramaturgy before moving over to Sydney Festival and was deputy director for four festivals, then became Festival Director and CEO for four more Sydney Festivals, moved to Adelaide for four years to direct two Adelaide Festivals, then directed Melbourne Festival for four years, before jumping over to MTC.  

The utter surprise of it all… 

I had no plan whatsoever, ever. When I joined the law firm on the Gold Coast I had no intention or thought of theatre reviewing. Then when I was reviewing I had no intention of working for a theatre company. Then I never thought I would work for a festival. Then I never imagined I would go back to theatre. So every step and career change has been in utter surprise and purely impulsive. 

Read, see, hear and experience as much as you can…

A big help is having knowledge across many art forms. My favourite arts quote is by composer Hanns Eislerth: 'If you know only music, then you don’t know music either.' It’s paradoxical, but brilliant.

Be collaborative, but don't be exploited…

Be visible. Go to the theatre, be in foyers, galleries, at concerts, whatever your passion is. Be prepared to jump in and do anything, and don't be precious if you think you're being asked to do something a little beneath you. Make sure you're not exploited, but many arts jobs are very much everyone mucking in collaboratively. So don't be a doormat, but don't be a divo/diva either.

Your personality is likely your very best asset and qualification”

Take the plunge and don't be afraid of not getting your first, second, third or tenth dream job. Confront your fears, all of them, and you will eventually conquer them. And so what if you fail. I have failed dozens of times, probably hundreds.

Keep trying, stay positive, bounce back, show when you're happy, don't play emotional or manipulative games, and above all BE YOURSELF and don't let anyone turn you into a cookie-cutter 'successful person'.  

Tai Snaith, artist, author and curator

Creating your own dream arts role…

My real start came from joining the editorial committee of Voiceworks Magazine at Express Media when I was a teenager. I can’t tell you how important that was for me, just to see that working on something you love in the arts was actually a possibility. It gave me an ‘in’ to the industry so many ways.  

When I was studying at the VCA I also volunteered at ACCA and this was also very important to my understanding of how the arts in Melbourne works, also where I first met curators like Mark Feary.

I got my first real job at Next Wave as an Associate Producer when I was 24. But first, because they told me I didn’t have enough experience for an AP role, I applied to the Australia Council for a Skills and Development grant to fund a self-created mentorship position under Marcus Westbury (who was Creative Director at the time). I went on to create a major exhibition for the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival and work as a producer there for three festivals.

The balancing act of the artist and the arts worker…

What was most challenging for me in these early days was understanding that I could be both a practising artist as well as a curator and producer. Many people were keen to tell me that this was not a wise idea. How things have changed! I’m very thankful for those who encouraged me to continue both streams of my practice, as they still very much form my position in the arts today.

Don’t worry about fitting into an already existing niche. Remember that those who move between worlds wield the most power.

Prioritise independence….

I never really have had a ‘plan’ per se, apart from making it work. For me, my main aim has been to be able to be independent and support my own creative practice. I’m not interested in making a heap of money, I’m more interested in being in a position where I can make what I want to and continue to explore new ideas that make me feel alive and curious and sane.

Simon Abrahams, Creative Director & CEO, Melbourne Fringe Festival

A full-circle career…

In a typical show business story, my first job was as an assistant working on Mudfest, the Melbourne University student arts festival. The Festival Director who had been employed to run the festival was (shall we say) unable to complete his contract and left before the festival had opened and before I knew it, I was in charge. I was not even 21 and in charge of a big open access arts festival. I’m a lot older now and the open access arts festival I run is a hell of a lot bigger, but it’s funny sometimes how life comes full circle. Melbourne Fringe still uses some of the same venues we used at Mudfest all those years ago.

Having a plan but being open to opportunities…

I did have a plan whenstarting out and through all the twists and turns of my career, it’s landed me in the best place I could imagine. As a student, I strategically studied a Commerce degree, majoring in marketing and management, alongside Creative Arts where I majored in Theatre Studies and Cultural Studies. I always knew that I was studying Commerce to gain the skills I needed in order to run a theatre company. 

But I’ve also followed opportunities where they’ve come along in unexpected ways – like taking the position as Head of Programming at the Wheeler Centre, which wasn’t the kind of job that had ever fit my plan, but I absolutely loved it once I got there. 

The volunteering essentials…

The truth, sadly, is that volunteering and interning really does work. That’s got financial implications for people, I know, but building connections and relationships is key and this is one way to do it. Taking short term contracts and not just looking for permanent work is another great way to get some hard skills on your CV quickly.

Esther Anatolitis, Director of Projects, Regional Arts Victoria

Stumbling into writing and advocacy… 

I'm not quite sure precisely when my beginning began... Somehow, emerging from a media, spatial and design practice that took me from Sydney to the Bauhaus on an extended residency and then onto paid work, I found myself in Melbourne 15 years ago, and later as co-CEO of Express Media. That was my first serious arts job – the one that made writing and advocacy core to who I am. I did my research on the organisation, its work and its current challenges, spoke to a couple of its board members, gave some good thought to questions I might be asked at the interview, and then on the day, I felt at home that I was able to be myself – and landed the job.

Alongside that role, which back then was a part-time job, I continued to work in the media as well as on other projects, and that was another kind of beginning for me: a working life that would continue to balance professional and creative practice.

Consider the potential, not the path…

My only plan has been to plan unintended consequences: to map the potential rather than the path. A fixed plan was bound to bore me! We develop and discover different strengths and passions at different stages in our lives, and we become different people with different interests and priorities. We're not agents on an empty field; we're complex bodies with evolving desires.

As someone with disability (a brain condition) and a chronic illness (endometriosis), I've also had to come to terms with the fact that every now and again, I can lose days and even weeks of energy and focus, and so that plan about the potential and not the path is also very much about physical and mental resilience. It's always the tiny things and not the big things that are the hardest to transform in our lives – and yet that's where we can make the biggest difference. Daily routine; experiencing and responding to new work; critical reflection on practice; all the tactics that connect the thinking with the work and the world... they are all about the body. 

Finding your best work and best livelihood…

Understand your instincts, and then, work out how to follow them. The most satisfying thing in life is to create that environment where you're making both your best work and your best livelihood out of what's the most you. And if creative practice is what drives you, then this won't likely be just the one thing. This isn't about finding that one ideal job – in fact, I'm not even sure that's possible; it's about getting to know what set of circumstances are going to be the most constructive for you. Are you a nine-to-five-type person? Do you need several projects on the go? What's your best living arrangement: are you happiest as a share-houser? Or how much of an income do you really need to sustain yourself?

Without a practice of critical reflection, you risk lurching into debilitating frustration; keep finding ways to draw, sketch, articulate or perform how your instincts evolve over time.

Penny Modra, editorial director, The Good Copy

The power of projects…

My start was Is Not Magazine, a weird publishing project I launched with four friends in 2005. It was a magazine printed and distributed on street posters. Each issue included about 15,000 words, published as a bunch of 1m x 1.5m paste-ups around town. There were essays, short stories and illustrations exploring different themes in each release.

We paid for it by working in hospitality and putting on fundraiser parties. That became half the job, truth be told! But it taught me that a magazine isn’t just a physical object; it’s the community that grows around it. 

Doing something off my own bat was what led to my first ‘real’ editing job, at The Thousands city guides – RIP. Being a writer and editor is a funny trade. There’s no simple pathway in – as there is for design, for instance, with all its industry bodies, awards and conferences. I edited ThreeThousand for seven years, which was the perfect real-world learning experience. Nothing teaches you how to edit a thing like editing a thing does. At the same time, I scraped through my arts degree and start some real training at TAFE. Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT is basically trade school for editors. I should have gone straight there!

I learnt by doing, and I think the challenge for writers today is that the ‘doing’ is becoming exponentially less well paid.  

It’s okay to have a day job…

Things are different now, obviously. I started more than ten years ago. I feel as though some things are the same, though. The arts is a grind. There are no safety nets, and often no human resources departments. You have to be your own human resources department.

You’ll need some money, so get a bar job. You’ll need the bar job to make the arts job affordable. But more importantly some money will buy you freedom to be selective about assignments. Not snobby! But selective enough that you’re learning and progressing.

Fiona Brook, Director, Zilla & Brook Publicity, and Production

Twists and turns…

My career path has taken many twists and turns; some creative, some definitely not. I started out as a designer, of lingerie no less, back in mid to late 80s and the days of the Fashion Design Council. Boy that was a fun ride: night clubs, parades, cocktails. Melbourne seemed like the centre of the universe pre-social media…..until suddenly it wasn’t, and then I fled for New York City to make my name as a fashion designer.

Ten years in NYC contributed a great deal to who I am today. Did I end up a designer? Well, for a few months in the swimwear department at Nicole Miller, but that’s it. It was no picnic working on Seventh Avenue! But the creative life was always in the wings, and I studied Creative Writing and Costume Design during this time. I costumed a couple of off-Off Broadway shows and a few downtown productions. There is so much you can achieve in a city like that. It just might not be what you had in mind!

I ended up as a stylist and then the editor of a fashion trade magazine. They were the longest hours I’d ever worked in a job before and since. This is where I first learnt about public relations as a ‘thing’. Fashion houses and accessory companies would send me free gifts all the time! It was one of the perks of being in a lowly paid media role, I guess.

Finally, I entered the world of PR through an Australian friend working for a NYC PR company who had the account for Lindemans Wine. It was pre-Sydney Olympics and he wanted an Australian voice to “sell” the concept of Australian food and wine to the US media.

I made my way back to Melbourne and got a job in a friend’s boutique PR firm working in hospitality and design. While I wasn’t convinced it was the job for me, I seemed to be good at it. I dabbled in a photography business for five years, continued to do freelance writing, thought about starting a magazine, a website and more. Yet PR called me back again and again. In 2011 I had the opportunity to start Zilla & Brook. This would finally be PR my way – and arts would be a major focus of the agency’s output.

Ready or not…

At 40 years of age it was the logical next step, but I really think of it as a journey more than a career path. Organic, intuitive, accidental and a dose of good luck has made this trip always interesting. If there‘s one thing I’m good at it’s recognising opportunities and taking them regardless of whether I feel ready or not. I will soon find out what I need to know!

Izzy Roberts-Orr, Artistic Director and Co-CEO at Emerging Writers’ Festival

You can focus on many things at once…

I did a lot of interning, volunteering and work in heaps of different places because I have a pretty varied set of interests and skills.

Often, the advice I was given was to just focus on one thing -– with the idea being that it's better to be phenomenal at one thing rather than really good at a bunch of things. I disagree with this advice, because I think it's possible to be both a generalist and an expert, to have breadth in the scope of what interests you as well as depth in your skills and knowledge. What's important how you're able to apply your different sets of skills, and how they all inform each other. For example, making independent theatre developed my event organising skills and taught me how to work with shoestring budgets and teams of artists; writing and performing poetry honed my public speaking skills and ability to be concise.

Running a couple of festivals, including working on the Emerging Writers' Festival as a Creative Producer intern in 2015, and then going on to be a Co-Director of the 2016 National Young Writers' Festival, gave me specific experience in terms of the context of programming and running a writers' festival as well.

Follow what interests you…

In a lot of ways I've just been muddling my way through by following what interests me, and focusing on learning skills that increase my capacity to do that well, on top of building connections and community. I don't know that I had a plan so much as a burning enthusiasm for storytelling of all kinds, and strengthening communities. After working as a Creative Producer on the 2015 Emerging Writers' Festival, I definitely did decide that I wanted to work in this community in a curation and production capacity, which is why I applied to be a National Young Writers' Festival Co-Director.

Just keep swimming….

I think it's really important to be yourself – you are the only person who can do exactly what you do, and if you focus on doing the things that interest you and work hard to get good at doing those things, people will notice.

We can speak about the arts as 'industry', which of course it is, but it's also a community, so remember that. The people around you are trying hard too, so do your best to be supportive, to be kind to yourself and others. Push your practice by trying new things, allow yourself to fail and be wrong, and then learn from that. Celebrate your achievements, and let yourself be proud of the things you have made.

Van Badham, writer and social commentator

An early start…

I was a member of a youth theatre company from the age of 14, and developed my theatrical skills from there. My first proper job was as the front of house manager at a theatre when I was 15, so when I was very young I learnt that you had to make money in theatre.

I went on to study creative writing and theatre practice at University of Woolongong. I never planned to be a journalist. The commitment I made to myself was that I would not train for a secondary career, I would only train to be a professional writer and theatre maker – which meant because I had no back up plan, I wasn't tempted into something else. 

The impact of life on our careers…

When I had reached my career goal of becoming a literary associate at an arts company, my father was then diagnosed with cancer. His subsequent death just destroyed my relationship with the theatre at the time. The transformation in my personal life affected a transformation in my professional life. My role as a commentator is about identifying tropes, and those are skills I had as a dramaturg. It wasn't a career I sought out, it was one that became apparent to me at a transformative point in my life.

Find your talents…

You will always struggle to land a job in the arts. The nature of artistic practice is rarefied and competitive. Identify where your talents are, and train them and train them and train them. Once upon a time when I was 14 and joined a theatre company, I wanted to be an actor. But I was blessed with the maturity to recognise that I was better at writing, and it spared me a lifetime of disappointment and misery. 

Natalie King, Curator, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017 

Learn while you study and be audacious…

I always had a job in the arts sector while completing my degree, no matter how menial or junior.

While I was studying at Monash University, I worked in a small commercial gallery in Richmond. Fortunately, the Director Michael Wardell had previously worked at National Gallery of Australia, so he taught me basic cataloguing skills and art handling techniques. I worked for $7 per hour and hand wrote the entire mailing list. Soon after, I worked part-time as Research Assistant at MUMA (formerly Monash University Gallery) and was briefed to research an exhibition on 'suburbia'. Somehow I had the audacity to argue that it would be prescient if I curated my own exhibition that was titled The Subversive Stitch in 1991 including Kathy Temin, Andrew Taylor, Rose Nolan and Narelle Jubelin.  

No roadmap necessary…  

I have never had a career roadmap and sometimes the detours have been the most compelling professional diversions. I am confident that what’s next will eventually find its way, it always does despite the fleeting panic after one project finishes. I like to turn to relationships rather than jobs: working as mediator, facilitator and accomplice to artists and their ideas.

I am not frightened to say 'no' and try to listen to the murmurings of artistic production and venture outside institutional comfort zones such as when I curated a suite of temporary commissions in Queen Victoria Market last year as part of the City of Melbourne’s inaugural Biennial Lab with the Melbourne Festival: curating in the expanded field.

Find a mentor….

I wish I had one in the early phase of my career and I have made a conscious effort to support the next generation of curators. For example, for Venice Biennale I mentored the first Indigenous Curatorial Assistant, Hannah Presley to work on the project and she produced an exceptional chronology on Tracey [Moffatt] for our publication with original research and information, narrating Tracey’s life through events, words and histories.

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator