How to kick-start the next phase of your arts administration career

Could studying NIDA’s MFA (Cultural Leadership) enrich your knowledge of the sector and make you a better arts advocate?

Even the most successful arts administrators sometimes need encouragement to help them advance to the next phase of their careers.

For Joel McGuinness, a NIDA alumnus who has served as Chief Executive Officer and Creative Director at Geelong Arts Centre for the last five years, such a challenge came during his previous tenure as Executive Director at Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre in Western Australia.

‘I’d got to a point in my career where I was running an art centre, I’d done a successful capital redevelopment, and I just felt like I needed something to kick-start the next phase of my career. I also really needed to redefine who I was in the industry and what I had to offer,’ McGuinness explains.

After weighing up his options, McGuinness identified the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Cultural Leadership at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) as his best option.

‘I thought it was really cool that they pitched it at mid-career creative professionals who were looking for something to really help them refine who they are and what they do,’ he says.

‘It’s like, we do what we do, but I think sometimes it’s really hard to understand and articulate that and how to take it further.’

With NIDA’s 2023 Open Day coming up on Saturday 17 June, arts administrators who are keen to reinforce and expand their existing skill sets have the opportunity to learn more about the MFA (Cultural Leadership) and how the 30-month program could benefit both them and the sector more broadly.

For McGuinness, the MFA helped him better understand his role in the contemporary Australian arts ecosystem.

‘I really needed to be able to articulate what it is I do and what it is that I personally believe in, and what I want to be a part of, and that’s what I found this course really useful for,’ he tells ArtsHub.

Joel McGuinness’ latest role has involved overseeing a major redevelopment of Geelong Arts Centre. Pictured: Geelong Arts Centre’s Little Malop Street redevelopment, exterior view from Johnstone Park. Image: Geelong Arts Centre.

NIDA’s academic rigour, and the connections and contacts entailed by studying at such a well-regarded institution were an added advantage, he continues.

‘To have a higher educational institution the sole focus of which is on the creative industries is really powerful. And then to have cultural leadership as something that’s highly valued at the Master’s level was why I wanted to go and study at NIDA.’  

Expand your thinking

With topics such as leadership, governance, communications and the practice of cultural policy covered in the first 12 months of the MFA, and advocacy, sustainability and international case studies explored in the second 18 months, McGuinness says the program was critically important in helping him expand his thinking and advocacy.

‘Through this course, I really came to understand that the impact on working with communities and genuinely changing them, is kind of like a superpower, you know?’ he says.

‘I was a little bit apologetic about my practice previously. I felt as if I was “just an arts administrator”. And through this course, I’ve really started to research – and there was a lot of rigour around the academic part of the course – and champion the fact that I believe in a contemporary Australian voice that is part of the broader conversation.

‘I want to be connected to global practice and what’s happening around the world, and link that back to what I’m doing in my community. And then I also want to be able to be part of the conversation with governments at all levels and stakeholders at all levels, with an evidence base behind it to really give some gravitas to what I’m doing,’ McGuinness says.

For industry colleagues who may be considering NIDA’s MDA (Cultural Leadership), McGuinness is fully encouraging about its benefits.

‘When I was doing the course, someone said to me they were so busy and didn’t know if they could do it. And I replied, “I don’t know if I can afford not to do this course,” because when is the right time?’ he says.

‘I loved the way the course was structured. It was set up for people who are working full-time. And so [my advice is] make the time and give yourself that opportunity to really reflect and refine and hone what it is that makes your practice unique and special.’

NIDA’s 2023 Open Day takes place on Saturday 17 June.

Richard Watts OAM is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, a Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend, and was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize in 2020. In 2021 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Green Room Awards Association. Most recently, Richard received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in June 2024. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts