Should you move regionally for work?

We speak to several arts workers who made the move about what it is like to relocate for work.
Should you move regionally for work?


If you've found yourself wondering whether you should leave the city behind for country or coast, you’re not alone.

In Sydney alone, nearly half of the 2.1 million people who have left the city for other parts of Australia since 1971 have moved to regional NSW, according to census data published by the Sydney Morning Herald.

But what about when it comes to the arts and other creative pursuits? Even in the arts we can find a trend involving a move from some of Australia’s biggest cities as creatives and arts workers make the decision to explore what regional opportunities are available.

Referred to affectionately as the tree or sea-change, the pull towards regional and remote locations is not necessarily an easy one and comes with its own set of challenges. But, after speaking with several arts workers, it clearly has its benefits too. Here’s how they made the decision and how they feel about it years later.

Finding a balance that works for you

For some people, committing completely to a regional move might not be on the cards. John Baylis, Head of Arts Programs at Bundanon Trust, decided to relocate to the South Coast of NSW but also keep his Sydney home as a base.

'I haven’t made that absolute commitment to leave the city and go bush. I have a foot in both camps and I find that works very well for me. I don’t think I would like to go completely regional, I think I will always like to have constant access to my peers in Sydney,' said Baylis.

'Bundanon has given me that balance. Three hours drive is probably the furthest you would want to be away, once you get to six hours it is harder to maintain that contact.' 

The attraction of Bundanon was the rare opportunity to work in a national organisation in a regional area. 'It was important to me that I would still be in a national institution and not be bound by a local government organisation or a state bound organisation. That was the unique quality of Bundanon, which can be hard to replicate in other regional areas.'

These days the fear that taking up a regional position means stepping off your career path doesn't necessarily hold true. As Baylis said, that's not the case anymore. 'Once upon a time that was true but there are a lot of lively regional institutions now, both regional galleries and quite dynamic regional performing arts centres which far from being career dead ends are very much a recognised career step for someone who wants to work in the arts their whole life.' 

Greatest challenge: 'There wasn’t anything really very hard. Where I’m living is only three hours from Sydney. I’m still in contact with Sydney and still have a home there as well so in a way I’m getting the best of both worlds.' 

Greatest benefit: 'I have a base in Sydney that I can return to and I have the benefit of living in a regional area and being able to wake up in the morning and see the sun rise without having to peer above the high rise.'

Read: A residency opportunity to free you from distraction at Bundanon Trust

A move fuelled by the desire to connect with community

After working for four years at Queensland Theatre Company as Marketing Manager, Simon Hinton took a year off with his family on Thursday Island.

The time away led him to reflect on what he wanted from his career and eventually led him to take on the role of Artistic Director / CEO of Merrigong Theatre Company in Wollongong.

‘I wanted a position where I could connect more deeply with an audience and be part of the community,’ he said.

His mentor Sue Hunt, who previously ran GPAC in Geelong, suggested he try a major regional venue.

‘Sue Hunt suggested that there was no better place to be exposed to absolutely every aspect of our industry than in running a major regional venue…And it’s true – we connect with every level of our industry – from the major performing arts companies to local dance schools, and every art form. We are involved in presenting, as well as hiring the venue, commissioning, producing, supporting artists, touring, running festivals, undertaking major capital works projects.  Every single thing to do with the performing arts that you can think of, chances are we’ve done it at some stage,’ said Hinton.

Did Hinton find the local connection to audience that he wanted? Yes, and it’s a huge motivation for him to keep going. ‘People stop me on the street all the time and thank me for what Merrigong is doing for Wollongong. That’s not just an audience saying they liked a show, but people really seeing the value for their city – I don’t think you would ever get that in a big city.’

‘There’s no disingenuous “darling, it’s wonderful!” in our foyers on an opening night. When we do need that connection to industry, Sydney’s only an hour away. But to be honest, we don’t really see ourselves in comparison to Sydney, we’re interested in how what we do serves our community and how it compares to the best theatre practice around the world, not how we fit in to what’s happening in the small pond of Sydney.’

Greatest challenge: ‘There not being a local arts industry as such. Lots of local artists, but very few colleagues that one can connect with and share experiences that are about the business of what we do. But then Sydney is only a bit over an hour away, so…’

Greatest benefit: ‘There not being a local arts industry. It keeps our feet on the ground. There is so much crap that one can get sucked into in our industry, and it can be very self-referential  and self-defining. Ultimately I’m far more interested in what our audience, our community, thinks about what we’re doing — and they really keep us honest!’

Read: Programming stories of universal relevance for local audiences

Moving to areas in creative transition

Desiree Jacobson moved from Fitzroy to Highton in Geelong with her family eight years ago. ‘We moved to Geelong at a time where there was this huge transition going on. There seems to be a lot of people who, like me, have worked in different states — I’ve worked in Sydney, NSW and I’ve worked in Melbourne.

‘I’ve worked on all manner of different events and festivals that have an artistic bent and bringing that knowledge to Geelong at this time when its future is taking shape is really exciting’

Today Jacobson works as Cultural Marketing and Communications Officer for the City of Greater Geelong  and is kept busy planning events like Mountain to Mouth and Geelong After Dark. ‘What I find personally exciting is that in some small way, I’m contributing to those outward looking ideals where the city has this clever and creative future,’ said Jacobson.

Greatest challenge: ‘Geelong had just started to transition when we moved here eight years ago and because we love to eat out, at first it was really difficult to find food, the kind of food you can find in Fitzroy. That was extremely hard and when you did find somewhere, within a matter of months it had closed. So the entertainment side of things was difficult for us, but it turned out rather fortuitous — we arrived at a time when there was this major transition happening and now the sky’s the limit.’

Greatest benefit: ‘It’s so true when people tell you that everything is fifteen minutes away in Geelong. And it’s also true that whatever you can find in Melbourne, you can find in Geelong, and that is absolutely true — only without the traffic!’

Read: Responding to Earth through performance, sound and light at Geelong After Dark

To own a home

The issue of housing affordability is what led Simone Nolan, Gallery Director of Wangaratta Art Gallery, to relocate with her husband and children from Melbourne to Wangaratta, Victoria.

‘We were frustrated to see how far our children had to travel for school, how far we had to travel to work,’ Nolan explained.

‘We now have a very comfortable house that we couldn’t have in the city. We both work in sectors that it’s really hard to get employment, but we were both lucky enough to find something.’

Since the move seven years ago, the family hasn’t looked back. But the decision of which area to live in was carefully weighed according to access to good schools and cultural facilities.

‘We very clearly picked about four or five areas in Victoria, and the North-East was one of them as we had connections in the area…The area was culturally aware – they had three regional galleries. For me that was fantastic, I needed that in my life. But also the wineries and the food, we just knew we had enough to feed our cultural interests, and what we wanted for our children. We situated ourselves in a spot where we could access Wangaratta and we could access Albury-Wodonga, and Benalla and surrounding towns,’ said Nolan. 

Greatest challenge: ‘Probably our biggest challenge was that we were a one-car family. We really tried to hold on to that but in the end we had to let go. And that’s probably the harshest reality – having to get a second car. Also the biggest thing to switch your mind to is that public transport is not great in regional areas if you need to travel, but my children walk or ride their bikes to school.’

Greatest benefit: ‘It’s very good for family life, it’s very stress free. We often pinch ourselves at how beautiful our surroundings are. There is an ease of lifestyle – to access your food, to go about your life. There’s just less chaos in life. That’s what we needed to do for ourselves.’

Read: Wangaratta Art Gallery: 'connecting, inspiring, and community wellbeing is our priority'

To connect with Country

Artistic Director of Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) Janina Harding said she left Melbourne behind for Far North Queensland to work with local First Nations artists and the Country they come from.

‘My mother’s parents are from the Torres Strait and Cape York. It was time to be with my people and do whatever l can to enable artists to flourish and use CIAF as a platform to share our distinct cultures to the world.’ 

Before moving to Cairns, Harding worked at the City of Melbourne as the Indigenous Arts Program Manager for 13 years, where she established the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival and Blak Nite Screen.

Greatest challenge: 'Hardest thing was moving away from my family and friends, especially my son Elia, who had just started at University of Melbourne. I am in regular contact with family and close friends and they come to CIAF each year, or I have holidays down there.'

Greatest benefit: ‘It is such a privilege to be in the position as Artistic Director, you have the scope to fulfil your artistic dreams. Much of the art that comes from the region is absolutely breathtaking. I am working in curator heaven!!!’

Read: One of a kind art fair promotes Queensland's Indigenous arts and culture 

International relocation leads to Albury

Bree Pickering moved from Philadelphia in the United States to take up the role of Director of the Murray Art Museum in Albury.

While some people might see a regional move like this as risky, Pickering said the decision was ‘quite straight forward’ in how it related to her career trajectory and interests.

‘I was looking for the next challenge, and the next challenge was really a collecting institution,’ she said.

‘The Murray Art Museum sort of popped up on my radar as being a new institution, so they were looking for a new director less than 12 months after opening. And everything about the way it was positioned was exciting, and then also knowing that it had a lot of local support in terms of philanthropic contributions to getting it built and that the council was behind it too, so for me this particular place seems like a good one to start and had a lot of positive energy behind it. And I thought it would also be an amazing opportunity to come into something new and sort of set the direction for it.

‘So in short the move was really me throwing my hat into the ring and then it fell in the way that it worked out and I got the job and it seemed too good to turn down.’

Greatest challenge: ‘Travel can be tricky – you need a big budget to achieve the sort of travel that’s required to stay connected, and that’s not always easy, but it’s a small hurdle. You just jump in your car and get on the Hume and you’re in Sydney or Melbourne in not too long at all.’

Greatest benefit: ‘After living and working in major cities for the past 15 years or so it sort of seemed like a nice change – there’s more space and I actually believe that running an art museum in Albury is the same as running one in Philadelphia is the same as Sydney. So the challenge for work is the same but the environment in which I get to operate is quite lovely.’

Read: Satisfying regional Australia's hunger for contemporary art

Jumping in before you have the job lined up

How important is getting take away food delivered to your door? Tim Dakin said it's one small thing he misses after his move to Briagolong in Gippsland where he had owned a house for nearly 20 years.

‘I took the risk and decided if I was to find a great job in the arts in an area I loved and live in my house, I had to move there permanently. In April 2016 I was living here and looking for work,’ he said.

Dakin took the leap before the job was available but four months later, he started working for Regional Arts Victoria and continues to work closely with local artists and communities as Creative Arts Facilitator.

‘Financially it made sense as it would mean only paying my mortgage rather than struggling to pay rent as well. My son was old enough to catch the train to visit me and the arts were thriving in Gippsland so I thought I could find work. I knew I had to live there to find work. I had to develop a better knowledge of the arts in Gippsland after years of being Melbourne based. I took the risk and moved to my home,’ said Dakin.

‘Professionally, it was difficulty having to navigate such a huge region and get to know the arts community. After years being Melbourne-based, I had loads of contacts and knew many people across the arts world. I had to start again in Gippsland and and have loved doing so. We have some incredible communities producing amazing arts. I love discovering new artists and new communities every day.’

Greatest challenge: ‘The hardest thing for me was being away from my son, Sam. Although I have never lived with him I had built a very close relationship with him and wanted to ensure that remained. But I also wanted him to make our little abode in Briagolong his home. Over the past nearly two years I have achieved that and Sam is down here regularly on his own and with his mates. However I’m also in Melbourne every second weekend or so hanging with him.’

‘Oh and sunshine when my generator isn’t working, as without sunshine I have no electricity.’

Greatest benefit: ‘No peak hour traffic!!! There is no stress driving to and from work. It’s 30 minutes there and back and it hardly every changes, even with roadworks.’

Read: Art-rich Gippsland region invites visitors to come and play in May

Brooke Boland

Thursday 26 April, 2018

About the author

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