• Dr Margi Brown Ash






Wesley Enoch speaks at Agenda's Communicating the Arts Sydney



Why do we attend conferences anyway? We all have our reasons. Some people do not need a rigorous list of reasons: work pays the registration fee and it’s a few days away from the office. Not always easy returning to a full mailbox, a host of meetings and an extensive “I-Get-To-Do” list, but sometimes a welcomed break. Others actually don’t make it to the conference because the price is just too high and too far away.

If you do finally make the decision to turn up, the two main objectives you can hold on to firmly are “I am here to learn” and “I am here to meet other like-minded people”. When these two objectives are kept in mind, those moments of aloneness, of not knowing what to do or where to go, move to the back of our mind. The courage to reach out and say hello, to share an idea that emerged from the last session, or an inquiry about what the other person heard, moves us closer to connection.

I have just attended a stimulating conference on the harbour in Sydney. Agenda’s Communicating the Arts (created by arts entrepreneur Corinne Estrada and team) is an international arts conference which attracts many arts workers, particularly those who work in the visual art sector, although this particular conference, Cultural Leadership, was also aimed at the performing arts.

I wanted to write about this particular conference because my official/non- bureaucratic task at the gathering was to act in the role of Philosopher/Provocateur, a role which was to challenge, in gentle ways, the status quo. I loved being able to think about challenging ideas and how to deliver them so that they land in the most generous way. My problem lay in Chronos-time limitations, and although I was armed with many questions emerging from each session, there was limited time to share them. When I could communicate, the feedback from fellow delegates was strong, and initiated a rich conversation.

Below you will find a summary of my personal experience of the conference, not necessarily focusing on content, but process. How did I move through the three days to emerge satisfied and surprisingly better off?

November 12.

“So, I’m running late.

My plane is delayed.

But not too delayed.

Up at 4am. Just so I have contingency.

Taxi at 4.45am. Plane at 6. I’ll make it. Good planning Margi.

But I don’t.

Flight delayed.

Once firmly on Sydney soil, I try to slip into the conference room unnoticed.

“Why it’s Margi Brown Ash” Wesley Enoch, our keynote speaker welcomes me into the room. I wonder if he has welcomed everyone in a similar way? As an arts leader, perhaps (certainly from my perspective) THE arts leader of Australia: he has an uncanny way of welcoming people into his world. He is constantly building community. He shoots straight. He creates change. And he is dearly loved.

“We are not seeing the changes in leadership that is required for these (troubling) times”.

He tells us, through a story, that: “We need to sing our leadership, otherwise we will fall off the earth (as in the indigenous story) …to sing is to embody. To embody means we leaders are operating from our hearts and our head” [and I will add ‘gut’ here].

“We need to sing up the future, otherwise there is not horizon”.

And then he gives us some tools that we can engage with so that we can sing our future.

“We will begin to recalibrate.


Fly a little less.

Embrace experiences rather than objects.

We do not need content. It’s at our i-phone fingertips.

We need curiosity.

We need creation.

We need stories.

We need to be bold.

We need more stories.

We need to listen to our First Nations people.

We need to embrace reasonable conversations.

We need to embrace JOMO: the JOY OF MISSING OUT”.

Thank you, Wesley. I leave with more stories, new ways of perceiving what I need to change personally in order to turn up a better and more effective leader.

Women In Charge Women in Change Panel

And then immediately afterwards, we heard the Women In Charge Women in Change panel. These particular women led organisations that are hopefully moving towards Wesley’s “changes in leadership” so desperately needed: we welcomed Tarragh Cunningham (GOMA), Sue Donnelly (Belvoir St Theatre), Dominique Gill (Urban Fitouts and Construction), Tessa Sexton (McCarthy Mentoring), Tatayan Franck (Musee de l’Elysee) and Gina Fairley (Arts Hub).

But I was left with a provocation.

As leaders who are women, how much agency do we have regarding the way we lead our organisations? Are we re-inventing what is required, moving away from the “male, pale, stale” model or are we just replicating it?

[PAUSE: I heard this expression (male/pale/stale) for the first time at this conference, an expression that you readers have probably heard for decades. Although reasonably offensive, I do not mean it as such…not a personal attack, rather a political one, and a somewhat droll summing up of the reverse of diversity, inclusion and equality].

We talked about glass ceilings and as I sat there I began to think of it differently. What if the glass ceiling in our lives allowed us a wider vision, a more complex view of the world? Most people cannot avoid ceilings, and if ours is made of glass, doesn’t it mean that we can see the future, we can see the top of the trees rather than just the lower branches, trees that hold the wisdom of the universe? And, dreaming this on, what if our glass ceiling had a gold button that opened the roof and we could all climb through? Just at the touch of a button… pull up a chair. Drink champagne (metaphor of course) and own our value system.

I loved the suggestions from our women panel:

What if we stepped up?

What if we made requests?

What if we shared the load?

What if we said ‘yes’?

For me, this is what I considered as I heard their powerful stories: Can we create our own unique leadership style rather than following the stories of leadership that we have inherited from our patriarchal system?


Wesley’s stories…

Your stories….

Personal and political, historical and religious, stories of power and stories of culture, of art, of you and me.

Time for sustenance.

Morning tea.

Yum. But.

The catering at this conference is first class. My only suggestion to the world of caterers is that you LABEL gluten free food as gluten free. When conferences do this, things are easy. When they don’t, coeliacs like me go hungry, not daring to test the beautiful morsels placed in front of us.

Burned my tongue on the coffee. So much better than luke-warm.

Then I walk down to the theatre to listen to a session called “Make a U Turn Please”. What joy! Elaine Chai (City Recital Hall) and Anthony Bastic (AGB Events) talked about failures. How many times have we heard failures being talked about at a conference? I’m not sure I have, so this was inspirational to hear. No justifications, no passing the buck. Not here.

“Go big. Go fast” (Elaine).

Love that.

“Numbers are really useful when they say the right thing” (Elaine)

Even better.

And Anthony then speaks. To contextualise. Anthony is responsible for the astonishing festival VIVID Sydney. His work continually morphs and he uses the world “enabler” and it hits home that all of us want to be enablers. We enable creativity to thrive. He uses the world ‘adaptability’: that we must be able to be led by our community.

So my leadership story is thickening.




Restorying the glass ceiling as we create a diverse community, accepting mistakes, and believing in our vision.

Such a rich day, this first day of the conferences.

I’ll leave you with a gift from Gift Chansa, Artistic Director of Circus Zambia who presented later in the day:

So may tomorrow be

A place to run, jump fly and land safely.

Warmest to you all,