So you want my job as an artist: Access manager at the sculpture festival

Meghan Kennedy is the Education, Access and Inclusion Program Manager of Sculpture by the Sea, an annual festival held in scenic and popular settings. This can sometimes be difficult.

But the upside is that it’s a fast-paced, dynamic role, rewarding for its connection to the audience and – for a bonus – often taking you outside.

Kennedy is currently working on the next event for Bondi, which will open next month (October 21 – November 7, 2022). She has worked for Sculpture by the Sea (SXS) for four years and was also involved in the recent creation of the Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail. She has been a venue technician for events such as the Adelaide Fringe and Sydney Festival.

ArtsHub caught up with Kennedy to find out what it takes to do this work and to dig deeper into its challenges – and benefits –.

How would you describe what you do to your parents?

I connect disadvantaged students across Australia with practicing artists and provide hands-on programs where young people learn from professional carvers across regional Australia.

I can also enable people with disabilities of all ages to experience world-class carvings in beautiful coastal sites that ordinarily can be extremely difficult to access for various audiences.

What qualifications do you need for this job?

A range ! I have a degree in sculpture and installation which really forms the backbone of the programs I produce, and I have years of event and gallery experience creating programs and managing teams.

Although I am not a qualified teacher, I have worked with many of them for several years, which gives me enough understanding of the curriculum to adapt our programs to support educators.

My background as an artist allows me to keep our school and access programs grounded in the creative process rather than simply offering education programs that only fit the curriculum.

How did you get started in this career? What was your first job?

I started this career at the age of 18, working in a small regional art gallery while traveling crazy distances and studying sculpture in Sydney. I worked in the office, filled out paperwork and helped set up the painting exhibits in the space. At the time, I had many different jobs in the arts and hospitality.

Then I started working as a site technician and installer for various galleries and art festivals and events, which led to occasional positions as an artist educator at various art festivals, including Sculpture by the Sea.

It was a combination of a lot of hard work and many years of managing teams for different festivals and venues. It really gave me a great understanding of the background of sculpture exhibitions and managing teams of people, educators and artists.

How collaborative is this work?

Above all, very collaborative. All programs are led by exhibiting artists, and therefore the programs are based on their own practices and processes.

It’s great fun collaborating with artists to create educational programs, and I work alongside a team of curators, site engineers, marketing professionals and designers who all add so much scope and color to the programs offered throughout our exhibitions.

What does an average week look like?

Lots of paperwork and planning most of the time. This can sometimes be quite unexciting in our off-season exhibition. There is a lot of email correspondence and risk management. But I can take trips throughout the year to regional schools in NSW and WA to deliver programs, and that’s hugely satisfying and exciting.

A few months before the exhibition (like now), it really starts to move to another level. There’s a buzz and anxiety you get at events that can be really energizing, and there’s a tremendous amount of adrenaline at a big show and program. It’s always a great challenge and it can be extremely fun.

Education and programming are key elements of the sculpture festival; Bondi Seaside Sculpture 2018. Photo: Jessica Wyld.

What is the most common misconception about your job?

That it forces you to be a teacher. I’m not. But I have a passion for bringing art to people and making it physically and emotionally accessible, and I think that brings authenticity to our programs.

There is no specific training that can prepare you for roles like this. It’s a combination of experience, skill and a willingness to go with the flow – and sometimes the chaos – that comes with working for large-scale exhibitions.

The kids are amazing, as are the diverse audiences that visit our exhibits and it’s so much fun to put on programs for them and the artists.

Is it like merging the world of art and the world of education?

The artists who host our programs always come out with eye-opening experiences watching people engage in their processes – which, to the average punter, is the mystical world of the professional artist.

How competitive is this job?

I would say very. I don’t see many coming. It is often an opportunity in the right place at the right time.

Working for festivals and arts organizations casually is always the best way to receive opportunities like this, one of the best assets you can have is experience with the organization. It goes very far.

During a job interview, what skills or qualities are you looking for?

Relevant higher degrees in visual arts, arts and/or education; a passion for accessibility and disadvantaged youth; attention to detail and a flexible personality!

Excellent organizational skills and experience in program planning and delivery; experience working in an event, museum, gallery or visual arts festival environment; experience working with people with disabilities, and an understanding and commitment to advocating for their interests and needs.

It often comes down to the right personality. Being organized but also very flexible is an unusual combination and being adept at handling the stress that comes with large scale events is essential.

What is changing in your professional field today?

Of course, the online landscape. A repositioning to be able to put your programs online at the last moment if necessary, and the possibility of working remotely. It’s wonderful that it’s possible, but it requires learned skills.

What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in this job?

Working with schools and communities affected by the bushfires to develop the first stages of a permanent sculpture trail, which has now launched as the Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail. It was a hugely rewarding process of meeting people and hearing their stories, gaining support, and then applying for bushfire relief funding to help rebuild tourism in the snowy valleys.

It is a traumatized community. They were devastated by the Black Summer bushfires and then quickly forgotten by the media due to the pandemic and subsequent flooding. Being part of the very early stages of the idea and then working for two years until the first phase of the launch was SO exciting.

It was amazing to see the idea come to fruition and to see it now benefiting the region financially while supporting the arts industry in Australia.

The 24th edition of Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi will be presented from October 21 to November 7, 2022. Discover the educational and public programs organized by Kennedy and the SXS team.

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