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NIDA's MFA Cultural Leadership program fosters innovation in leadership


The Master of Fine Arts Cultural Leadership program at NIDA equips those working in the cultural and arts sector with the vital skills needed to navigate the rapidly changing cultural landscape.

“MFA Cultural Leadership at NIDA is a truly unique program, one of only a select few postgraduate accredited programs in the world that is cross-disciplinary in its approach to cultural leadership”, said Amanda McDonald Crowley.

Highly awarded course leader Amanda McDonald Crowley has worked with Eyebeam art + technology centre in New York, the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT), Australia Council for the Arts, International Symposium of Electronic Art in Helsinki, Adelaide Festival, and the Australian Video Festival.

On teaching and mentoring future leaders in the arts and culture sector, Amanda says, “I am fundamentally committed to sharing my skills and expertise to ensure that the next generation of cultural workers can be the best possible world leaders in change making, while simultaneously learning from them. I operate from the belief that art makes a difference to cultural, political, environmental, technological and social well-being.”

NIDA: Can you tell us a bit about your background in the arts, and how it’s influenced your practice? 

Amanda McDonald Crowley: I joined NIDA to head up the MFA in Cultural Leadership in late 2022. I’ve had a professional practice as a cultural leader for over 30 years, and teaching and learning has always been a core part of my curatorial and cultural leadership practice. I’ve led small to medium-sized organisations particularly in the art and tech sector, including Eyebeam in New York and ANAT in Australia, where masterclasses and professional development programs for artists, curators and cultural workers were core to our program.

I’ve had leadership positions in major cross-disciplinary festivals such as the Adelaide Festival 2002 and the International Symposium of Electronic Art.

Most recently I’ve worked closely with artists who develop radical cross-disciplinary projects to realise their vision to reach broad and diverse audiences such as Mary Mattingly’s Swale project that engages artists and audiences to develop new work and knowledge around sustainable food systems; and Ligorano Reese’s School of Good Citizenship that worked to address issues of voter rights in the lead up to the US 2020 Presidential election. These kinds of projects always have at their heart strategies for radical audience engagement around social issues.

I’ve also taught at many educational institutions around the world, such as Adelaide University, the Estonia Academy of Art, and most recently at Hunter College at the City University of New York. I’ve been a teacher, mentor, lecturer and thought leader throughout my career.

I fundamentally believe in intergenerational learning and developing peer mentoring networks. We learn from sharing knowledge across diverse cultural, linguistic, disciplinary and generational boundaries. Some of my most important mentors are folks who I mentored early in their careers.

NIDA: The MFA Cultural Leadership program at NIDA aims to equip early- to mid-career cultural workers with the skills and knowledge needed to navigate the rapidly changing cultural landscape. Can you tell us more about how the program achieves this goal, and what sets it apart from other leadership programs? 

AMC: The course challenges students to question and debate the role of the cultural sector in our society and their own place within it.

The course is delivered part-time, as we specifically target students who are already practising professionals. We draw leaders from the performing and visual arts, galleries, museums, libraries, film and digital media, theatre, cultural policy and practice, and local government.

Learning is experiential, grounded in practice, and underpinned by contemporary leadership theories and approaches. Most of the course is delivered online, but there are four face-to-face intensives annually, each comprising a five-day event. Students are encouraged to collaborate in innovative approaches to creative and professional practice. We view peer learning as a core asset of the program.

Importantly, all our classes are delivered by industry specialists working in the field. We also have local and international arts and cultural industry experts who deliver guest lectures and lead conversation on issues as diverse as First Nations First strategy, climate change initiatives, audience engagement and participation strategies, global networking and anti-racism policy.

In our courses we cover governance, cultural policy, entrepreneurial thought leadership, communication, advocacy, cultural transformation, sustainability and research generated through practice.

Through participation in the program, mid-career professionals can gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become more future-focused and effective cultural leaders. This program is an invaluable resource for those who are dedicated to making a positive impact on the cultural landscape, both now and in the future.

Our graduates are the future change-makers: we hope they lead by example and collectively personify the change we wish to see.

NIDA: In your opinion, what are some of the key challenges facing cultural leaders today, and how does the MFA Cultural Leadership program at NIDA prepare students to address these challenges? 

AMC: Many of the challenges that cultural leaders need to navigate are common to those faced by leaders in other areas of social and economic life. How to stay solvent in an ongoing financial crisis. How to work in less carbon intensive, environmentally sustainable ways. But cultural leaders face distinctive challenges: they champion and produce new ideas. Balancing this priority, with the need to run a financially sustainable organisation that makes a positive difference to the world, gives cultural leaders a unique set of challenges: they must inspire confidence in projects without precedent or known outcomes. Business leaders can point to the fiscal bottom line, or leaders of charities measure their impact against a clearly defined social problem. The role of cultural leaders is similar, but their role is to explain and communicate the value of what they do. They are serial change-makers who inspire and interpret new ideas and knowledge. We encourage students to consider pressing issues: climate change, overcoming colonialism and making space for diverse cultural voices. We hope our graduates lead by example.

NIDA: The MFA Cultural Leadership program includes a variety of practical components, including the Capstone International Placement and Case Study. How do these experiences enhance students' learning and prepare them for careers in cultural leadership? 

AMC: A highlight of the course is the Capstone Project, a tailored placement with a prestigious international cultural organisation. Students grow their national and international networks and put their knowledge into practice.

The NIDA International Placement is accompanied by a case study report that is self-directed research and students are encouraged to extend themselves by working in environments that are outside of their existing frame of experience. The students undertake self-directed research that should benefit them and the host institution.

Students learn how to analyse and articulate the organisational context, structure and challenges faced by cultural organisations, within the context of organisational leadership. They prepare and present a detailed report to inform senior management and/or the board of the host organisation of the questions probed, the findings, and the evidence to underpin those findings.

NIDA: The MFA Cultural Leadership program at NIDA is designed for mid-career leaders who are passionate about the arts and culture. What qualities do you look for in prospective students, and how do you support their growth and development throughout the program? 

AMC: The program is designed specifically for cultural workers who already have active roles in the creative sector who aspire to facilitate resilient, new leadership models. Our cohorts reflect the diversity and intersectionality of lived experience in Australia and course content draws on diverse knowledge, research, case studies and leadership practices.

We look for leaders who are dynamic, strategic and collaborative, who possess a high degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity, integrity and emotional intelligence. The course is for leaders from across the cultural sector who are poised to take on a significant leadership challenge, those who are at a juncture in their leadership journey where they are ready to make a significant change in their careers. It is for leaders who have ambition and vision and can clearly articulate how they might take their leadership, and the cultural sector more broadly, to the next level.

NIDA: The MFA Cultural Leadership program has produced many successful alumni who have gone on to make significant contributions to the cultural sector. Can you tell us about some of these success stories, and how the program has helped them to achieve their goals?

AMC: I’ve only recently started with the program, so I reached out to Karilyn Brown, who has been leading the course for the last few years. She gave me a few names of outstanding graduates. I’m excited to continue to grow the program and our already impressive network.

Jo Thomas (2018) is the CEO and Creative Director of Metro Arts, where she strategically extended the organisation taking it further into national and international spheres whilst remaining true to the grassroots of supporting multi-disciplinary independent and emerging artists.

Joel McGuiness (2020) is CEO and Creative Director of Gelong Arts Centre. He is overseeing the Arts Centre through a $166.5m capital redevelopment and rebrand, into a new era where artists and audience are central to all that they do.

Jax Compton (2022) is a recipient of the Luminous Foundation Fellowship, as well as the Lynne Williams AM Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Leadership. She is a proud Wuthathi and Zenadth Kes woman and co-founder of Muggera Cultural Enterprise, a cultural performance and education company. Jax’s practice focuses on dismantling performative allyship, promoting fundamental change, and highlighting the importance of First Peoples.

Jessica Alice (2022) is CEO of Writers SA. She was elected as, Chairperson of the Executive Committee for the Arts Industry Council of South Australia. She is also a member of the Creative Industries Think Tank in South Australia and on University of South Australia’s Creative Industries Advisory Panel.

Merindah Donnelly (2020) is a proud Wiradjuri woman based in Meanjin Brisbane, Queensland. She is Executive Producer of BlakDance. In 2019, Merindah co-founded the First Nations Dialogues New York, which established a permanent First Nations experimental platform at Performance Space New York and was a recipient of the Australia Council ISPA fellowship 2020-2023.

Craig Middleton (2021) is a curator and creative producer who has wide ranging interests in Australian social history, LGBTIQ+ history, and critical museology. He is Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia, and actively engages in the museums and galleries sector nationally including as National Secretary of the Australian Museums & Galleries Association (AMaGA). He is also Co-Deputy Chair of the ACT LGBTIQ+ Ministerial Advisory Council advising the ACT’s Chief Minister.

Sammy Moynihan (2019) has recently been appointed as Director of the Rebus Theatre’s Re-emergence project, on which he is also artistic lead. The project facilitates residency and performance programs that engage adults with disabilities and tours an ambitious new theatre work in regional NSW.

Learn more about NIDA’s Master of Fine Arts in Cultural Leadership at the upcoming Open Day on Saturday 17 June 2023. Register now.

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