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Finding the balance – artist and administrator

A black and white image of a pair of feet balanced on a white tightrope that transects the photograph.

Guest Blogger: Emma Bennison

Since I started working in the arts and disability sector almost ten years ago, I’ve kept a secret.

A few people knew, particularly in Brisbane, my former home town, but not many. It wasn’t that I was ashamed or embarrassed by it, (well, maybe a little bit), just that I didn’t want to draw attention to it. My secret was that I am a singer, pianist and song-writer. Sure, I’d kept it on my biography, but I wasn’t actually practicing, it was purely there to give me some credibility. I’m ashamed to admit that, but it’s the truth.

I was busy working with others, many really talented people, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to be focusing on myself. I didn’t want to be working on my own arts practice in case in doing so I inadvertently took opportunities away from others. I felt that in order to effectively do my job creating opportunities and recognition for artists with disability, I needed to sacrifice my own practice. I know I am not alone in this approach and that many artists working in arts organisations avoid practicing.

I was fortunate to have a manager who recognised the benefits of arts workers and arts administrators nurturing their practice and spent a couple of years directing and singing in an a Capella group in Brisbane which I enjoyed very much. But any thoughts of resurrecting my solo work as a singer/song-writer remained firmly underground, apart from the occasional conversation with close friends about how I really should start writing again. It was somehow OK for me to be directing and contributing to a group, because that was still about other people’s practice, not mine alone. I would get requests to sing from people who knew me, but would usually suggest other artists with disability as alternatives since I saw the potential for others and worried about perceived conflicts of interest for myself. Lack of time and work and family responsibilities were my excuse, but the truth was that I never allowed myself to create enough headspace and never believed I had the right to be an artist. That was something I’d do later, some other time, when I got a new job.

It wasn’t until I moved to Hobart in 2012 that I began to question my reasons for no longer writing or performing. I was beginning to feel fraudulent and frustrated. Fraudulent because here I was, running a national arts and disability organisation advocating for the rights of people with disability to contribute to the arts, yet I wasn’t practicing myself, even though my work gave me countless subjects on which to write. I began to feel inauthentic as a leader. Frustrated because I was beginning to recognise how much I yearned for expression through my art form and that I could never quite say what I needed to say through speaking alone. I was still an artist at heart but not allowing that part of me to surface.   I also began to meet artists who were working in arts organisations, yet still continuing to develop their practice. It struck me that those who were managing to do so seemed much calmer and more fulfilled. Conversely, I will never forget the very emotional conversation I had with an artist with disability who was completely devastated because he had been forced to sacrifice his practice in order to run an arts organisation. I was shocked to discover how closely I identified with his grief and disappointment.

So I decided to begin writing. That might sound simple enough, but as any artist will tell you, the critic in your head can be your worst enemy, especially when that critic has been having a party for ten years celebrating how successful they’ve been at convincing you not to write. I managed to silence it by reminding myself that this process was simply about me wanting to convey messages which I felt were worth sharing and that I wasn’t seeking approval from anyone else. That seemed to work. I was on a roll and tentatively began sharing a few of my draft songs with my Facebook friends, which I knew would be a fairly safe space. Nobody un-friended me, so I continued. I ultimately ended up with enough material to fill an album and to create a live show. Most of the songs relate to my experience of disability and my work as an advocate and there are a few love songs and songs about family thrown in for good measure.

I still experience my share of self-doubt. But I am coming to recognise that my music is an important and legitimate opportunity for communicating some of the messages I talk about on a daily basis in a different, and at times more palatable medium to a broader audience. It also offers me an essential outlet through which I can express the often very personal and sometimes difficult emotions, which I experience as a leader with disability. I recently performed my show Fine Line at the Festival of Voices in Hobart and from the feedback I received I am confident that there were audience members whose attitudes and perspectives were reframed. Thanks to the support of the Australia Council’s Arts and Disability Funding Round I will release my album “Changing Minds” later in the year.

This journey is never an easy one for artists who also work in arts organisations, whether or not they are a person with disability. Though I do think that the fact that people with disability have such limited career development, leadership, funding and employment opportunities make the balance more difficult to manage. In the end though, I believe it is always important to be real and authentic in everything we do, particularly as leaders, so I will continue to walk the fine line and hope to encourage others to do the same.

So the secret is out. To be honest, I still experience uncertainty about how to manage my identity as an artist alongside my identity as the CEO of Arts Access Australia, to the point where I have considered sacrificing one of them. But that would be taking the easier path and would ultimately serve nobody.

Listen to Emma performing her song ‘Monsters’

Download the lyrics to ‘Monsters’ HERE (DOC 26kb)

Emma Bennison is a singer, pianist and song-writer as well as being the CEO of Arts Access Australia. Emma is a passionate advocate for the rights of artists with disability. Emma recently performed in the Festival of Voices in Hobart.