Midsumma CEO Karen Bryant lives, works, and breathes the arts. She recently caught up with Matthew Wade to talk diversity in the workplace and her vision for Melbourne’s pride festival.
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Where does your passion for working in the LGBTI space stem from?
I’ve worked in the arts for almost thirty years, with a focus on programming and festivals, but had never worked specifically for an LGBTI organisation before I moved to Melbourne almost two and a half years ago.
As a queer woman myself, I think I had come to a point in my life where my personal experiences and my professional life were ready to come together and the opportunity was there to do it with Midsumma. It was just the right place and time, and the right job.
Yes and no. I’ve been lucky to work in the arts all my life, an industry that is progressive in terms of sexual and gender diversity. That said, I have worked in larger mainstream cultural organisations that were more conservative, and there have been points in my life where I have been aware of clear barriers professionally because I was a lesbian.
I left one job I otherwise enjoyed in part because if this. The bigger barriers for me have been more about day-to-day life – my mother struggled right up to her death with it and there have been people around me in public situations who have made it known that demonstrations of any affection for my female partner were not acceptable. That never stopped me though, as I have been proud about my sexuality in life and professionally ever since coming out in my early twenties.
When you were younger, could you have imagined that one day you would be the CEO of Midsumma Festival?
The role of an organisation like Midsumma carriers so much expectation with it at times that it’s completely different to any other roles I’ve had. At first I felt the weight of that quite acutely – the importance of helping Midsumma thrive so it could deliver on so many community hopes was personally very important to me.
Now I’m a bit more relaxed (though I’m not sure that’s a word colleagues would ever use to describe me) and I’m extremely proud of what the team at Midsumma has achieved. A good CEO isn’t anything without a great team around them.
When you first got the role, what was your main vision for Midsumma heading into the future?
My initial vision was to build reputation, community trust, and organisational and financial stability to ensure Midsumma was sustainable. So many of our LGBTI organisations have closed over the past decade due to a lack of funds, a burn out of volunteers, and core staff in under resourced situations. So many members of our community were asked to do everything for Midsumma for free.
My position was that if we didn’t try to value professionals within our community for the work they did, at least in part, who would? I wanted to build a contemporary version of Midsumma, an organisation that was at the intersection between people’s stories, ideas, and experiences – a cultural connector.
What have you learned most about working in community spaces since being with Midsumma?
Diversity always lies at the core of everything we do. An important point for me is that we don’t speak for our many and varied communities – we aim to build capacity within and provide the opportunities and spaces for creative communities to have their own voices heard and amplified.
Young LGBTI people entering the workforce still feel scared to come out. What advice would you give them?
Everyone has to find their own time to come out. I do not believe anyone has the right to force anyone else to come out at a time that isn’t their own choosing. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone else, but being able to truly be yourself is crucial to self-worth.
When I came out I marked it with a tattoo, proudly stating the words courage and truth. These simple two words remain, so many years later, as the ones I live by.
You’re launching Midsumma’s 2019 program this month. What can everyone expect?
Woo hoo! Watch out for a major new signature project called Body which is unlike anything we have ever done before. Our wonderful festival bar finds a new home and will be the place to hang out, see great performances, have fun, and discuss life, the universe, and everything.
Midsumma has grown more than 40 per cent in size over the last few years, with audiences growing 75 per cent last year. So there really should be something (or lots of somethings) for everyone in this program. Festivals are about immersing yourself… after all, who needs sleep?
If you weren’t currently at Midsumma, where would you be working?
I’ve been lucky to have a career in the very area that I love. The arts is what I would be doing as my passion or hobby out of hours if I was doing anything else. So I don’t harbour any deep, dark desires to be anything else… though sharing my life with as many Siberian Huskies as possible has a certain attraction.
I do always love new challenges, but for now Midsumma is my creative home.
Midsumma’s 2019 program was unveiled on November 14. For more information about what it’s store, click here to read our coverage.