Activists, entrepreneurs & influencers: the future of cultural leadership

From activism to entrepreneurship - become an influencer in the arts with NIDA’s MFA in Cultural Leadership.
Activists, entrepreneurs & influencers: the future of cultural leadership

Jo Thomas, 2018 NIDA Master of Fine Arts (Cultural Leadership) alumna and CEO and Creative Director of Metro Arts, Brisbane. Art Starters launch event, 2019. Photographer: Erik Bates.

The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), long recognised as Australia’s leader in education and training in the performing arts, is also the home of the next generation of arts and cultural leaders. Now in its fourth year, NIDA’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Cultural Leadership helps industry professionals in their quest to create a sustainable and diverse future in which culture plays a transformative role.


‘These students will be the voice for their organisation or practice, and  also the voice for the sector more broadly, advocating for the place of the arts in society,’ says course leader Karilyn Brown, a recognised arts industry leader with vast experience nationally and internationally.

The MFA is designed for mid-career arts industry professionals who come from a wide range of disciplines and who really want to make a difference within and beyond their own organisation and who aspire to new leadership models. It values informed, courageous, and resilient leaders who embody empathy and a collaborative approach.

‘There is a big focus on arts advocacy and how we as arts practitioners, arts leaders, and arts academics articulate the role of the arts in society more effectively,’ says Brown. Students are encouraged to debate the ‘big picture’ issues such as 'speaking truth to power' and 'decolonised futures' and ‘from activism to entrepreneurship’ as they learn how to manage those difficult conversations that cultural sector leaders have to have.

‘How do you talk to governments or articulate the vital role of the arts in society? How do you advocate for change in a rational and persuasive way? Those are the skills leaders need,’ says Brown.

The MFA is taught over 27-months with a combination of five-day intensives and online learning, facilitated by NIDA’s own academics and guest lecturers. These are all high-level cultural leaders whose knowledge and expertise is at once contemporary and future-focused. Each MFA intake is only small, with just 12 – 15 students, which creates strong bonds and an environment of trust and confidence.

NIDA 2018 graduating Master of Fine Arts (Cultural Leadership) cohort, clockwise from back left: Mathew Millay, Andrew Westle, Yasmin Masri, Daniel Dunlop, Adam Deusien, Jo Thomas, Teik Kim Pok, Katherine Quigley and NIDA staff member.

‘The intensives are very dynamic, with robust debate and challenging ideas, but it’s all done within a safe and supportive environment.’

The course covers innovative approaches to creative and professional practice in governance, change management, communication, advocacy, cultural transformation, sustainability and research generated through practice. A highlight of the course is a one-month placement with an international cultural organisation.

‘We encourage the students to take a placement outside their usual area of expertise so they can be immersed in a challenging context and stretch their thinking,’ says Brown.

There is also an emphasis on diversity and inclusion to ensure the next generation of arts leaders includes those voices in society that are often left unheard in their teams, on their boards and in their programming.

‘Our students soon learn that leadership is not an individual space. It’s about collaboration, listening, integrity, and allowing others to take the initiative. These are all qualities that we look for in our students and foster during the course,’ says Brown.

Students develop the capacity to be proactive and comfortable with change by opening up new ways of thinking and finding a deeper understanding of their work and practice. Importantly, students are able to develop the personal confidence to advocate for change and the capacity to handle the potential push-back that comes with a change agenda.

Techniques of storytelling and building strong narratives are used to create engaging presentations and develop the ability to lead and facilitate groups in creative dialogue. . ‘When storytelling is so powerful and persuasive we can all share that narrative about the role of the arts in society and the value and contribution of culture in the 21st century,’ says Brown

Applications are now open for the next MFA (Cultural Leadership) intake, beginning in February 2020.

The application process includes a personal interview, conducted online for applicants outside Sydney.  ‘The workload is demanding, the standards are rigorous, and the content can be challenging. We assess each applicant on their passion, commitment, vision and aspirations for real change,’ says Brown. 

Karilyn Brown is hosting a series of information sessions across the country for interested applicants to learn first-hand what’s involved in the MFA (Cultural Leadership). Register your interest.

Sessions will be in:

Canberra - 4-6pm, Thursday 8 August, Ainslie and Gorman House

Perth - 4-6pm, Wednesday 14 August, King Street Arts Centre

Adelaide - 3.30-5.30pm, Thursday 15 August, MakeSpace at ActNow Theatre

Darwin - 4-6pm, Tuesday 20 August, Darwin Civic Centre

Brisbane - 4-6pm, Thursday 22 August, Brisbane Powerhouse

Sydney - 4-6pm, Thursday 29 August, Information & Cultural Exchange, Parramatta

Melbourne - 4-6pm, Tuesday 3 September, NIDA Melbourne

Hobart - 4-6pm, Wednesday 4 September, SOHO ARTS 

Diana Carroll

Friday 2 August, 2019

About the author

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the SMH, the Oz, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.