Emily Sexton is in her first year as Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Next Wave, a biennial festival and artist development organisation that supports innovative work from young and emerging artists. Prior to this, Emily was the Creative Producer at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. She spoke to arts interview about how she juggles the realities of leading a small arts organisation that makes a massive impact.

Interview by Emiline Forster

Do you feel that regardless of the job title you often find yourself balancing multiple roles?

Yes and no. In the arts you certainly need to be responsive and flexible. We are switching between different kinds of ideas all the time. We go from very conceptual conversations to very financial and strategic ones, and I think that is the nature of our practice. However, the challenge and joy of growing as an artistic director is to know how you want to execute your goals.

Earlier in my career there was that sense of being led by the work as opposed to being led by how I wanted to work. These days I make a lot more choices about how I want to work and what I should focus on.

I guess it is also about achieving a balance between personal and professional roles. When your passion, life, work and friendships all roll together you have to be quite careful to make sure that you still love all of those things – it is not like we are doing it for the money. It is something that you have far more control over than you might think. Last year just before the 2010 Melbourne Fringe Festival opened I had dinner with my old housemates. It was a commitment to myself that in amongst all this dedication to a community that I adore, I would also prioritise me being a good person who still caught up with her old housemates. I think it is something that you need to be really cognisant of all of the time, because it can stop being fun very quickly if you are not directly aware of it.

Do you think the size of an organisation affects a person’s ability to find balance between all the required roles?

Probably not. I think it comes down to the individual. For me personally, I know that I will always throw myself into things, I will always love what I am doing and be passionate about it, and I will probably always be working on things that, if I let them, will take over everything. So regardless of what you are doing, if you are working in the arts you need to make sure you are still enjoying the ride. Certainly in a small organisation you are covering a lot more territory and there are so many factors that lead towards you needing to diversify your skills, but there is also a nimbleness that means you can be quicker to respond to new and exciting opportunities.

How do you manage the shifts between your professional roles? For instance going from a creative headspace to a financial or planning one?

I guess you tend to have your eye on the bigger prize and see them all as part of a larger whole. I cannot be artistic without thinking clearly about how I am going to resource that endeavour. I also have to consider what my audience might want or need as well as how I will support and nurture my artists to ensure their ideas are the most explosive and radical that they can be. You have to take the time to manage and plan all those factors yet still stake out time to just talk about ideas. To achieve this, I have put in place a range of structures that allow us to prioritise the art, but also ensure that we continue to talk about why we are doing it, who we are doing it for, how it is going to happen.

When moving from the Fringe Festival to Next Wave, did you feel equipped with the skills needed to fulfill your new role, or did you accept that you would be learning on the job?

Both. Certainly there are loads of experiences, people that I have worked with, and things that I learnt at Fringe that provided a fundamentally amazing foundation for my time at Next Wave. But at the same time, I would not start any job presuming that I have all the knowledge that I need. The wonderful thing about Next Wave is that we really are a development organisation at every level. For me and my co-CEO Paul Gurney, this is the first time that we have come to the organisation, and the board is really dedicated to nurturing us as arts leaders so we can in turn nurture artists and arts workers. It is a really positive and exciting environment where it is ok to fail – it is ok to make mistakes, because that is actually how we will learn. It would be pretty crazy for us to go so hard at inventing new things and really being innovative, and also expect that to succeed 100% of the time. I am learning things all the time in this job and that was one of the reasons I was so excited to step into a new role.

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