Interview with Shelley Pisani, The Ideas Distillery, Bundaberg

Curator, producer and mentor Shelley Pisani has over 25 years’ experience in the arts sector as a studio artist, marketer, consultant, gallery director and founder of Creative Regions Ltd in Bundaberg. Shelley is currently operating The Ideas Distillery, a consultancy business specialising in arts-led innovation with a focus on visual art and design, heritage, gallery and museum practice, multi-arts, place activation, festivals and events. Shelley also specialises in producing, arts management, mentoring and skill development.

Hi Shelley, thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with RASN. To give us a bit of background into your career working in regional arts could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got interested in creative practice?

Thanks Jess.  I was fortunate to have grown up in a very rich environment of arts opportunities in Bundaberg.  From an early age I was going to pottery classes, learning to paint and draw with my Aunt and her friends.  I was going to galleries and museums and developed an absolute passion for history, producing my first “illustrated publication” about the role of my Grandparents in World War II at the age of 14. There was abundant opportunity and I was fortunate to have a family who wanted to see me go down a career path I had a passion for. 

Having started your trained as a ceramicist what sort of opportunities or challenges did working within the regions present you?

My ceramics days were actually purely out of opportunity.  After university I moved to Brisbane and gained a position working in the ceramic and craft industry in marketing, sales, teaching and designing.  I had my own studio where I taught people to paint their own pieces and produced ranges of products mainly for the retail gift market.  This was based in Brisbane.  When I moved back to the Bundaberg region it was to take up a position at the regional gallery.  If I had that same studio in Bundaberg now, I would find being regional less of a barrier.  Online selling and reduced cost of marketing through social media would really benefit that business model now.

‘The 4 of Us’ exhibition with fellow fine arts degree students from Bundaberg (L-R) Claire Ford, Julie Smith (represented by her work and not present), Shelley McLucas and Fiona Manderson in 1992.

How did you transition from the role of practitioner into the world of arts management? Was it easy to access the training and pathways necessary to make this shift within your community?

It was purely the opportunity to take up a role in public programming at the Bundaberg Arts Centre (now Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery) that brought about a mind shift to arts management.  In the creative industries, many of us work in roles with such diverse experiences and skill sets that we can quite easily apply it to a career change.  My training in education and industry experience opened this opportunity.

When I really found myself thriving in this environment, I decided to do further study and enrolled in a Master of Arts and Entertainment Management through Deakin University.  I did this “via correspondence” in the days when going online was starting to emerge.  I was able to put this study directly into practice when I was promoted to Gallery Coordinator.  There are even more pathways for study available now in arts management. 

I can’t say any of my career path changes were ones I predicted.  I have always remained involved in the broader industry and networks from a young age which meant the development of opportunities.  This is really important in our sector, not just in the regions.  These connections are valuable pathways.

During your time as an artsworker you worked with both the Bundaberg Regional Council and Creative Regions Ltd. What roles sort of roles did you manage within these organisations and how did this help your carer trajectory?

Like many positions within creative industries, we have a title but to make it work we truly need to work in a multidisciplinary way.  When I was working with Council, there was a need for strategic planning and policy development.  This hadn’t been done before in Bundaberg and I had certainly not had the experience.  Through connections and conversations I was able to develop appropriate methodology and learn from consultants engaged in the process.  That was a starting point of creating plans and policy for local government for me.  I was mentored, self-taught and learned through hands-on practical experience. 

I developed curating, programming, project management and producing skills on the job and through my external studies.  It is putting it into practice and learning from fellow artists and artsworkers through collaborations that have broadened my skill set over the years.  An important part of the mix is also learning what you are good at and what you enjoy. 

I had the privilege of working with Circa for three years while at Creative Regions.  I have no performance or stage background, so it was a steep learning curve and a thoroughly enjoyable one.  I know when to step back and let the specialist play their part and where to provide the support.  So the role of producer is another one that has evolved through experience.

Behind the scenes at the Afloat Creative Recovery event in Mundubberra 2014 with project coordinator Ainsley Gatley, a Creative Regions project that responded to the natural disasters of 2013.

What were the main differences between working with local council and operating within an organisation?

When working in local government, you have to argue well to achieve budget outcomes, but once you have them, you know what your programs and goals are for the financial year.  However, it is a balancing act between political whim and strategic planning.  When the balance is right, artsworkers and creative communities can thrive in that environment.  When the balance is out of kilter, it can mean less flexibility and capacity to respond to sector and community need in a timely manner.

In a not-for-profit sector, the financial pressure is always there.  Constant funding applications, partnership and relationship development and cultivating the next big thing are high on the agenda, reducing time on delivery in many cases.  There is a need to be politically attuned, but being independent means that arts organisations have the opportunity to be more flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of the sector they service. 

So I would say financial stability, political balance and flexibility are key differences. 

You are now working in a freelance capacity as a private consultant with the Ideas Distillery and also as a peer assessor. Can you tell us a little bit about these various roles, projects on the horizon and how your average day goes?

The move to freelancing was to give me a little more flexibility to spend needed time with my children through their schooling and extra-curricular activities that surprisingly are all creatively focused!  I have continued as a consultant since 2004 with only a two-year break as things got too busy at Creative Regions.  So it has been a fairly easy transition back to full time consultancy thanks to the valuable connections I have in the arts sector and broader community

This year I am curator for a new culinary festival called Taste Bundaberg, drawing together a program through partnerships.  I have worked with the culinary sector through Creative Regions and as a volunteer with Bundaberg Tourism over the last 7 years so this is an exciting addition to that journey.

I am also excited to be working with the wonderful team at Scenic Rim Regional Council to support the development of the Arts Ablaze Conference and Celebration that will take place at Kooralbyn in October. 

I have several other contracts lined up that involve community engagement and consultation, policy development, mentoring, funding and research.  I am continuing as a registered peer assessor with Arts Queensland and Australia Council for the Arts which is a fantastic way to stay tuned into industry trends and get to know about new and emerging artists and practices. 

I am also developing two initiatives that involve partnerships with state arts organisations, local government and industry that are currently in the planning and funding phases.  I will be playing the lead producer role in the two projects that are emerging.

What do you love about the Bundaberg community and why do you continue to work within the region?

My family is here.  It’s my home.  We have a great balance of opportunity, lifestyle and affordability.  The home I live in would easily be 2 to 3 times the price if I moved to a capacity city.  My children have the opportunity to participate in just about any hobby, artform, sport or community activity you can imagine.  My partner has been able to forge a career in IT in Bundaberg. 

I am a phone call, Skype or email away from my network.  I can hop on a plane for 50 minutes or drive for 4 hours and be in Brisbane. The fact that I can find the work to support my career, work from home, be with family and have the lifestyle I desire keeps me firmly planted in Bundaberg.

Thanks for chatting with us. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I am excited for regional Queensland as it moves into a new phase with the Regional Arts Services Network.  All the very best to my colleagues in rolling out projects and programs in 2019.

Click here to learn more about The Ideas Distillery