Leading from the front: how an MFA helps realise your vision

Ali Murphy-Oates, the Managing Director of Sydney-based company Moogahlin Performing Arts and a proud Wailwan woman, has her eyes firmly fixed on the future of First Peoples’ arts and culture in Australia.

Studying a Master of Fine Arts in Cultural Leadership at NIDA is not only bringing Murphy-Oates closer to realising her vision of a First Peoples-run performing arts centre; it’s also better equipping her for her role at Moogahlin Performing Arts.

‘My vision is to establish a First Peoples-run performing arts or multi-arts centre that can host shows from around the country and the world,’ Murphy-Oates told ArtsHub.

‘This push for us to be able to tell our stories, our way, is not new. I’ve taken up the cause of the many folks who have come before us in our sector.’

Last month, Murphy-Oates was awarded the 2021 Luminis Foundation Indigenous Fellowship in Cultural Leadership at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), enabling her to undertake a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Cultural Leadership, with the school funding 50% of her course fee.

‘I see this MFA as a stepping stone to being able to realise a strategic plan and a business plan for that vision of a First Peoples-run performing arts centre,’ she said.

The MFA in Cultural Leadership is also better equipping Murphy-Oates for her role at Moogahlin Performing Arts, where she has worked since 2015.

‘I’m literally learning the theory behind what I do for a living,’ she laughed. ‘I’m learning how to do my job in reverse.’

‘Having the time and opportunity to sit down for two days – as we did a couple of weeks ago in our most recent NIDA intensive – and fully understanding the background to how not-for-profit governance works and all of the components that makes up good governance, means I already have a better way of running board meetings for Moogahlin Performing Arts. And that will make decision-making so much easier and the flow of our meetings so much more practical,’ she explained.

‘The other really exciting thing about this course, I think, is that it’s a course written by leaders in the arts for people working in the arts. And I feel that in every single part of the curriculum, how practical and useful this course is for arts administrators and artists alike.’

Moogahlin, which was established in 2007 on Gadigal country in Redfern NSW, has a busy year ahead, having already presented a number of works in development at the Yellamundie Festival and staged Baiame’s Ngunnhu Festival in Brewarrina in northwest New South Wales.

‘The rest of this year we’re looking at some really exciting new work developments – our entire rest of the year is new work development, hopefully with a few new premieres in 2022 and 2023.’

The MFA is also providing her with new perspectives and greater agency.

‘Greater understanding of the cultural landscape nationally and internationally means I’m better placed to see where my work fits into it, and where I perhaps am more capable and more powerful than I originally thought. And that means that I’m better able to move through that landscape and make positive change for my people,’ she said.

Given the insights the MFA has provided Murphy-Oates with to date, her focus on cultural leadership begs the question: what does good cultural leadership look like in the arts?

‘A cultural leader doesn’t necessarily lead from the front but leads from behind,’ Murphy-Oates explained.

‘When I think about cultural leadership, I think about other blackfellas in the arts that I’ve looked up to for the last 12 years: Rhoda Roberts, Wesley Enoch, Nadine McDonald-Dowd, Alexis West, Caroline Martin, and my colleagues, Liza-Mare Syron and Lily Shearer. They’re all people who have a mission that drives them, and a community that they serve. And they’re all people who do deep consultation and collaboration in the work they do. They are serving others around them. And that for me, is what a good cultural leader is.’

Find out more about the MFA (Cultural Leadership) at NIDA Open Day on Saturday 12 June.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts