It’s been a pleasure to showcase our creative community of artists over the past year or so and continuing on from that, we’re presenting a special Blog Feature Series around the wonderful people behind the scenes – Arts Workers and Arts Managers. This series has come about from listening to our creative community – many of whom are actively pursuing careers and looking for work in this industry; as well as wanting to acknowledge the dedication and hard work of our Arts Worker community.

Our first featured Arts Manager is Lia Pa’apa’a – a truly inspirational woman juggling a number of arts management roles. If you’re interested in the arts, an artist or looking for work in the arts management industry this article is for you! Big thanks to Lia for sharing her stories, expertise and knowledge. (Also we need to acknowledge that Lia was instrumental in setting up Colour Box Studio and for that we’re so thankful!!) Grab a cup of tea, sit back, relax and read below…

Can you please provide a brief overview of what you’re doing now or what your current project is?

I currently wear two hats- both of which I am really proud of and enjoying!

Lia Pa'apa'a. Photo Provided.
Lia Pa’apa’a. Photo Provided.

1)       I am the Coordinator of the Indigenous Traditional Dance Project & DanceSite Festival Director  for Artback NT: Arts Development and Touring  and am based in the remote community of Borroloola which is located 950kms south/west of Darwin in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  I live and work full time in Borroloola and love the community lifestyle!  My role is to work with local community to develop and implement a series of activities that support traditional dance, ensuring that there is cross generational exchange and preservation of culture and stories.  The project culminates in a two day festival, DanceSite which hosts over 10 different dance groups from across the NT and QLD all of whom perform their traditional dances and share with one another.  In order to live out bush you have to be prepared to get your hands dirty and do what needs to be done, I am a facilitator, a bus driver, a tour manager, a cleaner and I make a lot of cups of teas!  I also get to listen and learn about these amazing cultures that are based out here, spend time with the elders and go camping and fishing on my time off!

2)      I am the Festival Director of the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival in Melbourne.  This is my love job and what I do after hours.  It is important for me to work with my own communities (Pacific) and I am part of a small committed team that is producing some amazing content across art forms at Footscray Community Arts Centre each year.  It is definitely hard being based so far away from the team but it is not impossible- we work on DropBox and Skype and meet regularly.  It also means that I get to go back to Melbourne to visit family and friends so that is a bonus.  I am really proud of what CPAF has achieved so far and have big plans to grow the festival into something sustainable and national in the future!  As the festival Director I need to make sure that I am on top of my game all the time- especially while I am so far away!

Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival, 2014. Te Hononga O Nga Iwi performance on the Main Stage at community day. Photo Provided.
Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival, 2014. Te Hononga O Nga Iwi performance on the Main Stage at community day. Photo by Rachel Main.
What has been your career pathway leading to these roles? 

I did my training in Indigenous education, but found that as a teacher who was working with culturally diverse young people (& adults) so much of the learning had to be done in a ‘hands on’ way and be relevant to the people lives.  I found myself organising heaps of small scale events and productions from fashion shows to movie workshops and everything in between.  I then got a job as and education officer for a small arts organisation- Music Outback Foundation that run music programs in remote Indigenous communities across Australia.  It was here that I really transitioned from education to the arts and as it was a small company I found myself running one of the large festivals within a year and I have not looked back!

Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival 2014. Naup Waup telling traditional stories from his homeland. Photo Provided.
Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival 2014. Naup Waup telling traditional stories from his homeland. Photo by Rachel Main.

Have you done volunteering, internships or work experience?
I have a strong network of artists in my friendship and family group and have always tried to make myself available to support any of their projects and causes along the way.  This has meant that I have been able to work across different art forms and with a cross section of people which I think is really important.  It gets you out of your comfort zone and challenges you.  It also allows you to see how different people run things and you get to learn different systems.  It is important to learn what works for you and I have picked up so many useful tips and tricks (including templates which are invaluable when starting up) that all the hard work I donated definitely came back in spades!  I have now worked in  film, music, weaving and traditional dance.  There are so many skills that are transferable across genres and art forms that I now feel confident running a the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival which is a cross-artform festival!

In the beginning what were the challenges in entering the arts management industry? If so, how did you overcome them?  

Mara mob dancing at Mbantua. Photo Provided.
Mara mob dancing at Mbantua. Photo Provided.

There are big expectations from the arts sector to work really hard and not necessarily for much money.  You have to have a really balanced life style and have to make sure that you don’t lose who you are in all the work.  Most people in the Arts are there for the love of the form and the spaces that it creates within society.  The Arts allows you have creativity as part of your daily life which is fulfilling but you still need to pay the bills!  One of the attractions to the Arts is the travel- I have been to some of the most beautiful places in Australia and am currently living in a small community in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The travel does mean however that you are away from your friends and family so it is important to nurture and look after your personal relationships.

What do you love/ find rewarding about your current work? Is there a particular job/ project that you’ve enjoyed?

 I love being able to provide platforms for mine  and other communities to have their voice through the arts.  One of my strengths is being able to communicate to diverse stakeholders about a project- I feel comfortable working with community and also sitting in board meetings- which is not something that everyone can do.  To me it is not the art form necessarily but the stories that are being told that I am committed to. There is such great value for the artists and audience/participants who get to experience arts and culture.  My current love project is the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival that is an annual event at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.  As I am of Samoan descent- it brings such joy and strength to me being able to work with my own community.  To see elders and young people enjoying the day and performing their culture in front of thousands of people is food for my soul.

What lessons have you learnt the hard way in terms of your work?  
You also have to look after your health- it can be high stress in the Arts, especially when you are building up to an event and you can feel the tensions rising.  Someone told me that you have to keep your cup full and anything that flows from that is what you share and spread across your work- it should never get to operating with your cup half empty!  I have also learnt to give myself and the project that I work on time to grow and develop, rather than wanting everything to go perfectly all at once!  As an Event and Project manager you can only prepare as best you can and then there has to be an element of letting go so that things can just role out- at that point you are there to just be responsive to things as they come (and they always do) but by that time you know the event/project inside out so you will have it covered!

What tips can you provide for writing funding proposals?
Be prepared!  Give yourself time to work on each application,  once you have completed the first draft let it sit for a few days and then re-read it.  Also, do not be afraid to speak to the funders- they all have people assigned to each grant and they are there to help.  It also allows them to get to know you and the project. (I must have called one worker at least 8 times during my last application)  By the end we were on a first name basis and she was giving me tips!  Lastly, have great documentation of your projects and events- a picture speaks a thousand words and any video or photos always strengthen your case!

What do you find challenging about working in the arts management industry?  
As an Arts Manager your role is to be able to see the big picture of the project- working across all stakeholders from elders to funders and make sure that everyone and everything is travelling on time and on budget.  Meeting everyone’s expectations can be really hard and often you can be caught between a creative vision that you believe in and a budget or deadline that needs to be adhered to.  I believe that transparency is the best key- open and honest communication and sometimes a big glass of wine!

I also feel that the industry needs to look at how it works internally- I think a lot of people, including some artists do not understand what is involved in being an arts administrator- working to create another persons creative dream is a selfless and many times thankless job!  I would like to see see dialogue between artists and arts workers to find some best practice models of how we can move forward ensuring that everyones financial & creative needs are met.  Again, open communication is the key!

What advice would you give to those wanting to get into Arts Management?
I would say go for it!!  It is a rewarding and challenging role that allows you to wear many different hats and work with a diverse range of people.  Try to find a mentor or someone that you can go to for advise.  And as I said before, look after your health and relationships- you are going to need them all along the way!