A need for a creative release led former paralegal Michelle Zemancheff to pick up photography. But it was an internship at a local council that opened her eyes to the important role of arts managers.
Now working in Arts and Cultural Development at Nillumbuk Shire Council in Melbourne, Michelle manages five direct reports and 30 volunteers to deliver a diverse portfolio of programs and responsibilities.
Annual literary and arts awards, public art installations, acquisition and conservation of artworks, curating community galleries, artist residencies, and other collaborative projects across the council are just some of the opportunities that Michelle provides for the community to celebrate its culture and enjoy the arts.
How important are the arts for a community?
If we don’t have community wellbeing… if we can’t practice, participate in the arts and have beauty and have a way of being able to exchange ideas, it’s not a community.
Local governments are becoming more and more aware of their responsibilities, that their job is more than roads, rates and rubbish, and that it is about community wellbeing.
Whether they’re focused on organising exhibitions, supporting and connecting community groups, or renewing urban spaces with the installation of public artworks, projects like these bring everyone together and get them talking about and celebrating their creativity and their sense of who they are and their sense of place.
What is the role of an arts manager in local council?
In arts management you get to interact with lots of different stakeholders and many different business areas.
It is important to ensure that I am in touch with the community conversation. I regularly meet with councillors, state and federal members, key community leaders, arts and community organisations.
This means I’m involved in a very broad range of activities, such as promotions and communications, organising grants, reports and policy writing, research and benchmarking.
How do you make it all work?
I am a big believer in the practice of Community Cultural Development. It’s about supporting the community from the ground up, building up their resilience, building their capacity to take ownership of their own creative projects and their own creative outcomes so that we in the council are the glue, not the do. We do a lot with very little, because we are creative people! Our programs provide a leaping board for emerging artists to develop their careers and enable established artists with opportunities to not only cement their careers but to share their professional expertise so that the spectrum runs full circle.
From law to photography to community arts management – that’s quite a career change!
I was in a career that was very dry, very serious, very regimented, and I just needed to do something creative.
I began studying photography as a creative release from law – first at the Photography Studies College and then later at RMIT University. I was exhibiting some work and was inspired by the council arts officers that were helping the artists. They brought so much out of my work that I didn’t realise was there.
That was my introduction to arts management. I later undertook an internship in local government through my undergraduate program at RMIT.
How important was an internship to discovering your career direction?
It was my turning point. It allowed me to explore what the right avenues were for me. I was just immersed in a collaborative environment and seeing how my colleagues operated, what types of work they did and how their work benefited the community.
What was it like studying a postgraduate degree at RMIT?
From the word go, I just felt like I was home, like that was my place, I felt like this is where I belong.
Noone had a similar background to each other, and it was a whole new world to me. There were musicians, actors, people from media backgrounds … Becoming exposed to those disciplines of the arts was incredible, because when you’re doing photography you’re just among photographers.
It was just after the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, so I was writing a lot of papers on the role of arts in disaster recovery, and the importance of having the arts as part of the recovery toolkit.
Do the arts play a part in recovery? Does policy create change, and how do you enable this? I had no idea – these were genuine questions!
So I started meeting with and interviewing arts officers and people connected to the council, which gave me a lot of insight into what was going on. I ended up making a whole network of people of contacts of knowledge right across the area.
Then when a position became available at Nillumbuk Shire Council, I already had strong community and sector connections that helped me get the job.
What are the key skills you gained from studying the Master?
Critical thinking, critical debate, creative debate, creative exchange.
I learnt to look at things deeper than their face value from multiple perspectives and get to the nuts and bolts of a problem. Working with community, that’s quite often what happens – there will be a particular issue, but the issue is actually the symptom of something else.
Do you think arts managers make great managers?
I am beginning to see myself as not just an arts manager anymore. I’m a manager of people and large-scale projects. I manage staff, stakeholders, organisational policy, planning and budgets. You manage up, down and sideways.
The way you think as an arts manager makes you different. Sometimes you can come up with ideas that are really left-of-field – you can come up with ideas that no one else comes up with.
You can manage other business areas. Arts management is only the beginning.