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40 Under 40 winner of the day: Elizabeth Nowell


Leaving Adelaide to gain skills in some of the world’s biggest cities before returning to South Australia is paying dividends for Elizabeth Nowell.

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The Flinders University graduate got her start as a visual arts officer with Country Arts SA and Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute before moving to Sydney in late 2010.

Nowell worked for five years in Sydney as a curator, writer, lecturer and also managed several Australian artists including Tony Albert, Alex Seton and Khadim Ali.

In 2015, she undertook a four-month curatorial placement at the Brooklyn Museum in New York where she contributed to a major research project on feminist art.

Nowell returned to Adelaide later that year to take the role of executive director at the Contemporary Art Centre of SA and led the amalgamation of the centre with the Australian Experimental Art Foundation. The 33-year-old became the founding CEO of the merged organisation, ACE Open, last year.

ACE Open provides transformative contemporary art experiences for artists and audiences from its space in the Lion Arts Centre on North Tce.

Nowell was last month named a winner in the inaugural InDaily 40 Under 40 Awards.

We asked her some more about doing business in South Australia.

What do you believe are the strengths of doing business in South Australia?

The biggest strength of doing business in South Australia is proximity. We are so close to Western Australia, the eastern seaboard and Central Australia. Engaging in and participating in a national dialogue is critical for working in the arts and cultural sector so being a quick plane trip away from the rest of the country is a huge advantage.

I also think about proximity in relation to decision-makers. The scale of Adelaide – not too big, not too small –means Government, business leaders and decision makers are always within close reach. This is unique to Adelaide and although it can work against you, it can also be a huge asset.

Finally, proximity in the arts means there is a constant dialogue between all parts of the cultural sector, and between artists at all stages in their careers. Students at university, young graduates, emerging artists, established artists, and our artistic luminaries all exist in conversation in the same spheres in a way that is impossible in larger states. Similarly, I am able to be part of a community not just of visual artists, but also performance makers, writers, chefs, and architects – a multitude of different creative brains which make this city tick.

What do you believe are the weak points of conducting business in South Australia?

The biggest challenge of conducting business here in South Australia is the lack of diversity within leadership. In senior positions, there is a serious lack of cultural, age, and gender diversity.

Our leadership is not representative of the state, the country or of individual organisations’ stakeholders. With a lack of diversity, you risk ending up with a very much homogenised arts and cultural industry that relies too much on the same people to inform and make decisions about the creative landscape. For South Australia’s cultural industry to thrive into the 21st century, we need to make room for new voices and new ideas.

Do you see your future in South Australia?

I would like to have a future in South Australia, and I am currently committed to and passionate about my role at ACE. I am so excited about the position of my gallery in this city and all of the opportunities this position represents for me at this stage in my career.

However, at this stage, there is simply not the career opportunities to keep me here when I am ready to grow and take my next steps. As a young leader, I am not yet ready to take on a major organisation such as the Art Gallery of South Australia in a leadership capacity, so the question is then: what other small-to-medium organisations can I move into? The answer is none.

My current role at ACE is unique in South Australia, as ACE is the only independent contemporary art space in the state. In other cities in Australia, there are at least half a dozen similar organisations, all offering distinctive career opportunities, with the ability for arts leaders to grow and progress their skills and capacity.

How can the state encourage more of its young leaders to stay?

In the arts and cultural sector, there is a lot we can do to keep young leaders here.

Firstly, we need to hand over positions of power to young, dynamic and energetic leaders. Adelaide is a great place to cut your teeth and prove yourself – I say that from personal experience. However, in order to make room for us, power has to be relinquished by some of the more established arts leaders in this state. Young leaders need the opportunity to realise their vision and ambitions, to take risks and to reinvigorate the arts scene. The state will be far more exciting for it.

Secondly, government needs to better invest in the small-to-medium arts sector to ensure it has the resources and infrastructure to support young leaders with bold ideas. It is not enough to have festivals and major institutions. We need the resources to support dynamic artistic programming 12 months of the year so that leaders continue to be inspired, challenged and supported.

Research by academics such as Ben Eltham has shown that across Australia, smaller companies are the leaders in artistic innovation. These companies, which embed themselves in year-round programming, are crucial avenues for audiences to be involved not only in the arts, but also in their communities. Without a robust year-round, small-to-medium sector, Adelaide will continue to lose out not only on jobs – both the artists who will move to larger artistic communities, and the professionals who must move to further their careers – but also those who work outside of the sector but wish to be part of a thriving cultural society.

In the arts and cultural sector, there is a lot we can do to keep young leaders here.

South Australia has long been known as “the festival state”. Festivals are a boon for economic activity and for concentrated tourism numbers. But we need to invest more in the arts, and arts leaders that are here for Adelaide – and her visitors – all year round. South Australians want to stay here – we only need to give them an excuse.

More about 40 Under 40

An assessment panel representing the South Australian business community judged hundreds of nominees for the inaugural 40 Under 40 awards, which aim to identify and promote a new generation of local leaders under the age of 40.

The final 40 includes a hugely varied collection of South Australian talents, who are making a mark in fields such as health, technology, the media, property, social innovation, agriculture, finance, the law, and much more.

For the full list of 40 Under 40 winners go here.

40 Under 40 is an InDaily initiative supported by the following partners:

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