Cultural leadership: more than just a buzzword

Brooke Boland

We ask two mid-career arts professionals how studying Cultural Leadership helped them achieve their professional objectives.
Cultural leadership: more than just a buzzword

The inaugural MFA Cultural Leadership cohort at NIDA. Image supplied.

Late last year, the inaugural cohort of students studying the Master of Fine Arts (Cultural Leadership) at NIDA graduated. Among them was Katherine Quigley, now Artistic Director and Chief Executive Officer of Backbone, a youth arts organisation based in East Brisbane.

‘Throughout the duration of the Masters I went from being Backbone’s Executive Producer to their Artistic Director and Executive Officer,’ she said.


Quigley observed that the learning from the course contributed to her professional development and career progression.

‘What I was gaining from the degree was assisting me to understand the higher level operations of an organisation or company and how to manage governance, but also to look at the artistic strategy and positioning of Backbone within the wider sector across Australia and indeed internationally. I gained an understanding of how we could make a bigger impact and what impact we were making both on our local community and the Australian community as well.’

The MFA is designed specifically for mid-career producers, directors and managers like Quigley who already work full-time in the cultural sector. It provides an opportunity that encourages the kind of deep critical reflection required in a cultural leadership role in the arts.

‘Things changed at Backbone within that time as a result of what I was doing at NIDA,’ she said.

Learn more about MFA Cultural Leadership at NIDA

After only two years, the MFA has demonstrated its strength as a course that is taught by senior cultural leaders working at a high level in the arts industry, giving access to excellent industry mentors and peers.

The course includes hands-on research training. This exercise involves playing with beans as data sets. Image supplied.

Helen Healy, a current student, said these lecturers have been inspirational to her own work as an Arts and Cultural Engagement Consultant.

‘The quality of the lecturers, who have provided important insights into leadership, policy, sustainability, advocacy and practice, has impacted upon my personal and professional knowledge and inspired me to expand my consultancy work,’ said Healy.

‘The MFA will produce leaders who are exceptionally well informed about the current arts industry in Australia but more importantly who have considered deeply what the future looks like and how we'll play a part in that pathway.’ 

Quigley also agreed: ‘The lecturers are outstanding. You don’t just get a meeting with them, there is a whole term of feedback on what you should be doing. That’s not something you can really get elsewhere because they are nationally recognised leaders and phenomenal thinkers and minds,’ she said.

These connections aren’t just national. International placements also inform the degree and have led to career opportunities for students.

‘When I did my international placement, I went to the Battersea Arts Centre in London, and since then I've been working with Battersea on another project with Backbone: a partnership has developed between the two organisations,’ said Quigley.

‘Without the opportunities to be positioned as I was with NIDA, that would not be possible. And I think the impact that is going to have on young people that I work with and also those that work with Battersea is going to be huge.’

The course is structured in a way to allow students from across Australia and New Zealand an opportunity to study at NIDA, requiring on-campus participation through four five-day intensives each year, supported by online learning throughout the year. 

‘I’m also a single mother and so there was a lot on my plate all at once,’ admitted Quigley. But I was talking about this to someone who is thinking about doing the course as well and they asked me, “Should I do it? I’ve just taken on a new job.” I said that is the perfect time to do it. That’s exactly the time you want to be critically reflective of what your new job could be, and actually have the space to do that,’ said Quigley.

For more information about MFA (Cultural Leadership) at NIDA visit

NIDA is offering, through the generosity of the Luminis Foundation, an Indigenous Fellowship for the 2019 Master of Fine Arts (Cultural Leadership) which covers 50% of the course fee. Apply by 30 September 2018.

About the author

Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW.