By Jenny Wilson and Georgie Meagher
Georgie Meagher graduated with undergraduate and masters degrees in Creative Arts (Performance) from the University of Wollongong in 2008. She is now CEO of Next Wave Australia’s most comprehensive platform for emerging artists which includes learning programs and a biennial festival. NiTRO editor, Jenny Wilson, spoke with her about the influence of her university years, her role as an alumni and her advice for graduating students.
Jenny Wilson: Why did you choose to enrol in a creative arts degree?
I enrolled in a creative arts degree because I loved performing and singing and I knew that learning more and working in the arts was something that I really wanted to do. But we were always told that this was a pretty difficult if not impossible proposition so I actually enrolled for a creative arts/commerce double degree kind of thinking that I needed to have a back up plan.
We had a group that went through three years of undergraduate study together . . . It was from that that we formed collectives when we came out of uni and made things happen together in a way that would not have been possible if we had not been so galvanised in our relationships over those three or four years.
I got part way through that double degree, and a couple of subjects like my accounting fundamentals do come in kind of handy for my current role as CEO for an organisation but it didn’t last very long at all! I switched over to communications and kept on doing it for a little while but I realised that I was much better off giving my full attention to the creative arts degree and continuing on with that sort of learning and personal development. I felt that I could learn the bits that I missed out on in my commerce degree on the job. It was clearly not where my passion lay! Creative arts is really different in relation to other degrees in that you form quite a tight cohort, you have a lot more contact hours and there is a lot more extra curricular stuff going on so its quite difficult to balance that with other degrees.
Did you find that the original fear of not getting a job when you completed lessened during your degree?
I have always been a very driven and ambitious person. I don’t know whether my choice to drop the other degree was necessarily a case of ‘I am going to be fine and I am going to get a job’ but more that ‘I am going to be able to make what ever I want work, work’ and committing to that. We were getting told though the whole of our degree that most of us wouldn’t get jobs in the arts. I think those teachers who used to say that are probably gone now but there was definitely a bit of that old school kind of ‘treat em mean’ competitive mode between the cohort but I am quite a headstrong individual so it didn’t have too much of a negative impact on me.
Do you think that competitive thing of ‘keeping you on your toes’ helped or hindered ?
It is tricky because the world is competitive and working in the arts can be quite cut-throat but it wasn’t hard enough to impact upon the relationships that we had as a cohort. I think that if it had eroded that then it really could have been quite damaging but given that it was interspersed it was probably a bit productive in sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Obviously there was a close student cohort. Was that one of the things that stood out for you when you were doing your studies?
There are a couple of things that were really important to me. We had a group that went through three years of undergraduate study together which means that you are building the connections, the relationships and networks that you will then go out into the industry with. It was from that group that you get to know people so well, you get to understand peoples’ ways of working, to understand who you are on the same page with and who your visions align with. It was from that that we formed collectives when we came out of uni and made things happen together in a way that would not have been possible if we had not been so galvanised in our relationships over those three or four years. The other important thing for me is that I grew up in Sydney and no-one from my high school had gone to Wollongong uni in recent memory! I was paving a bit of a new path going to Woliongong; the uniqueness of going to a university where most people are coming from different places. You are there to learn, to meet new people and build new connections. One of the most formative aspects of my whole university experience was that idea of moving away to do it and getting out of the mould of high school and its ways of seeing the world in a particular way.
How easy did it find it to get your first ‘job’ in the arts?
While I was doing my Masters, a collective that I had formed throughout the undergrad degree got a pretty amazing opportunity – a residency with a larger company that we aligned ourselves with. That was us saying somehow the right thing but also being in the right place an the right time as an organisation who wanted to take a chance on ‘nobodies’. It was the relationship with that organisation which led me to build relationships with staff there and in six months time I ended up with a fulltime job.
Was there anything that you did at uni which has been useful to your subsequent professional ilfe?
So many things! I that the main thing was around the freedom that we were given in our studies to develop our own creativity and ways of collaborating – responding to briefs and coming up with new ideas and interesting responses to them. Studying dramaturgy, which was our main theory study, and having a solid understanding of the history of the sector in which I now work is very important but also the day to day things about ways to handle problems, to think about how to get to that grand vision that we are imaging together. This might be a festival for me now, while at uni it was a small one hour show but it is a similar type of thinking.
One of the assignments that I did at uni was completing an application for a program that I now deliver! – Kickstart is a national artists program that my organisation runs. . . . it was a very interesting flip that happened when I landed in this role!
What have been the standout moments in your professional career so far?
I have worked on some spectacular things – I have been so lucky. The things that I have been most proud of are the Next Wave festival that I directed last year and the work that I have done in my role here. The festival took place over 3 weeks in Melbourne. We had over 120 thousand attendees and we won an award for our access and inclusivity initiatives. Across the board we really committed and focused on involving artists with disabilities in our programs and making our programs more inclusive and accessible for audiences with access needs. That was quite transformative for the organisation and for the sector as well. I think that it will change the way that Next Wave does things in the future and many organisations have been coming to us since asking about our approach.
We also have really strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in our programs. It is the elements of diversity and inclusion in our programs that make it so exciting and it is always good to see great results, awards and audience numbers
Is there anything that you wish you had learned at university?
Something that has been hitting the sector in a much more confronting way in the last year or so is about what value the creative arts brings to society and needing to articulate that – just feeling that and being confident in the importance of what we do in a much broader sense than just among ourselves is so important. I am not sure if that is something that can be taught but I think that a kind of sense of belief that can be cultivated in students from the earliest stage to be advocates for the arts in their every day lives and understand the things that they are probably going to come up against in the current political climate and the world that we live in.
How do you keep in contact with Wollongong now that you are an alumnus?
I have a great relationship with Sarah Miller. She was my Masters supervisor and has been an amazing support to me since graduating. She is so well connected in the industry so for the first year or two if I was standing at an opening that she was at she would grab me by the arm and introduce me to half the room. Having someone like Sarah who is so well connected and respected in the industry to say how these young people are doing interesting things and keep an eye on them – that matters and was a big help to me.
There are occasional alumni events and dinners in Melbourne. I attended one event, I was the only arts person there, where senior leadership were seeking feedback about their programs. It was really a wonderful thing to be invited along to this. I have got friends from other universities that look at invitations to alumni events and just know that they are going to be asked for money! The alumni engagement at Wollongong really feels different – it is about a community, a network and a two way relationship.
What do you think is the role of alumni for the current student cohort?
It should be in someway about being available – for students to feel that there are some special connections that they have. That may mean that someone who is much further along in their careers might answer an email or have a coffee and give them some advice, or give their resume a closer look. I think that going back and speaking to students about the different possibilities of pathways is really helpful and important – giving that insight into the mood of the industry, of the sector at a particular moment and current trends and things to be looking out for. You can get that insight in a much more ‘on the ground way’ from alumni than perhaps from people more centred on the institution, as knowledgeable as they may be.
What pieces of advice would you give for students who are just about to graduate from program who want to have the same success as you in their practical career
If you are not busy already then get very busy. Just start making things happen: Form a collective with your fellow students; Ask your university if they have got any budget to support an alumni venture – I know that we got a few hundred bucks one time to do a show in the fringe festival which was a really important arts development opportunity for us; Ask the teachers that you love who else you should talk to or if they could introduce you to anyone. But mainly just get really busy. Look at the organisations whose work you love and just go and be there – volunteer, go and see shows, go to openings do whatever you can. Often opportunities will come from having a presence and showing your commitment and interest by being there, being in attendance and helping out.
I have been thinking a lot about the how the value of the arts and creativity to the jobs of the future that will emerge. There hasn’t been a strong articulation from the arts community or from the broader creative sector about the importance of those skills that you learn when you are working in your tertiary studies. I think that they are the most important skills that we know were are going need in the future. There are some very smart people talking about it but it needs as much energy as possible.
Jenny Wilson is DDCA’s Research Officer and Editor of NiTRO. She is an independent consultant to universities and academic bodies and an Honorary Fellow of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses upon higher education policy and its relationship to academic ‘tribes and territories’, particularly creative arts disciplines. Her book ‘Artists in the University: Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education’ will be published by Springer in 2017.
Georgie Meagher is CEO of Next Wave anda curator, writer and organiser interested in creating and experimenting with contexts for art to be made and shown. Independently, she has curated exhibitions about economics, organised screenings about strange obsessions, given lectures about James Franco and published critical texts about the future of artist self-organisation. As a performance artist, Georgie has presented her work internationally at ANTI Festival in Finland and You and Your Work Festival at Arnolfini, Bristol. She was the recipient of a Cultural Leadership grant from Australia Council for the Arts in 2012, is alumna of Independent Curators International New York curatorial program, and holds a Masters of Creative Arts (Performance) from the University of Wollongong, NSW (2008).