Jo Thomas’ passion for the arts and culture is the driving force of her colourful career in programming, producing, and performance. She previously worked on projects for Brisbane Festival, Brisbane’s contemporary circus company CIRCA, the inaugural Brisbane Festival Theatre Fringe, Queensland Music Festival, Bleach* Festival, Actors Centre Australia, and Empire Theatres Toowoomba, as well as in film, television, and theatre.
She is the Creative Director and CEO at Metro Arts, which she founded as a platform for her advocacy in developing the future of Australian contemporary arts. Metro Arts supports artists and creative innovation through mentoring and helping these artists realise their creative works, present these works to audiences, and help build their career pathways, locally, nationally, and internationally.
In the past three years, Metro Arts supported 810 artists to create 24 new Australian performance works and 58 new exhibitions. The organisation also worked with 50 presenting partners in 17 towns and cities across Australia, garnering a 38% growth in patronage. And in 2019, Metro Arts projects received six Matilda Awards, three Adelaide Fringe Awards, and the Palliative Care Queensland Award for Innovation in Community for the ground-breaking ‘Deathfest.’ Jo also won the 2020 Telstra Queensland Business Woman of the Year and 2020 Telstra Queensland Business Women’s for Purpose & Social Enterprise.
We chat with Jo about her journey on championing all forms of contemporary art and presenting them not just nationally but to the world.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I’ve had an incredible journey with careers in performance, producing and now programming and artistic direction and creative leadership. It’s been hard work, sometimes heart-breaking but always interesting and full of unique opportunities and wonderful people. The only thing I would change would be to speak to my young self and somehow fill her with confidence, so she could grab all the amazing opportunities that were presented. I know sometimes through self-doubt or fear I have let things pass me by. I wish I had been able to do that differently, but I certainly make sure I do it now!
Was there a significant turning point when you decided on your career?
I always wanted to be in the creative sector. I started acting when I was 5 and always enjoyed performing, writing, dancing and singing. I haven’t strayed too far from this initial love but there have been significant moments of change when I’ve pivoted within the sector. My internship with Shakespeare & Co in the USA; my travelling Churchill Fellowship and my Masters at NIDA were three significant turning points in my career, all opening up new paths to explore.
Was your journey linked to your personal one?
A career is only part of your life’s journey but often a critical one. I have always followed my heart and endeavoured to do what I loved, and what I felt was contributing to community and this has taken me all around Australia and around the world. I’ve been incredibly lucky to travel a lot with work and have learned about other cultures in the process. I hold a particular fascination for Japanese art and culture and have been studying the Japanese martial art, Aikido for 14 years where I am a Shodan (black-belt). Because of this personal love I applied to be part of an Asian Producer Platform (APP) in 2015. I was thrilled to be chosen as one of only 5 Australian producers selected for the APP – a 4-year initiative connecting producers from across Asia. Through this Platform I travelled to Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Melbourne to connect with my fellow Asian producers and grow cultural understandings and soft diplomacy. The dovetailing of career and personal journeys like this adds particular richness.
Initially, what difficulties did you face?
There have been a number of challenges in my role at Metro Arts including dealing with a dilapidated heritage-listed building, struggling to ensure viable cashflow and a cantankerous 70-year old lift that insisted on breaking down constantly. But 2017 was a particularly challenging year for me. I had recently been appointed to the CEO role thus taking on a significantly increased workload and responsibilities. I was also studying my Masters part-time at NIDA which included 4 intensives each year in Sydney; and I was completing my 4-year engagement as part of the Asian Producer Platform which involved another residency. It was a perfect storm of major commitments, a heavy workload and not enough time. Then my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The diagnosis was a complete shock to us all. There is nothing like severe illness to sharpen one’s focus and re-evaluate priorities.
Who or what was integral to you overcoming these hurdles?
In order to be able to support my mother through treatment I needed to communicate with my team, my colleagues and lecturers. I learned how to ask for help and support in both a work and personal environment, and vitally I learned that this is not a sign of weakness nor failure. I learned the value of flexible work conditions and sharpened my ability to work in unusual locations including airports and hospital waiting rooms. Most crucially, the support I received through this challenging time enabled me to be present for my family whilst also continuing my studies and work to the highest level possible. As a leader I am acutely aware of my team’s personal challenges and responsibilities and encourage them to prioritise as they need in difficult times. Work is important to me and I believe in the value of all we do at Metro Arts, but we must also remember the importance of family, good health and living a connected life.
What do you believe was the best decision you made in business?
In the past 2 years I have been working with the Board to implement a once-in-a-generation change. We have restructured the organisation to take it from being asset-rich and cash-poor to one with a new business model, significant capital investment, a sustainable cash-flow and the newly-established Metro Arts Future Fund (MAFF); whilst also bolstering the artistic program and initiatives with greater artist support, increased organisational output, local, national & international reach & establishing new partnerships across and outside the sector.
The MAFF is our most crucial strategy to future-proof the organisation, grow additional investment and reinvest distributions back into the business and community.
A preserved principal will be retained in perpetuity with dividend payments on ethical investment strategies funding contemporary arts projects, initiatives and artists for decades to come. The investment strategy will be strengthened through focused philanthropic and corporate fundraising growing the principal. The impact of this transformation will have an ongoing impact in the arts sector, and with our partners, locally and nationally for countless years.
Who do you look up to in business? Who inspires you?
I have an incredible network of women who support me every step of the way. This includes my colleagues and my dear friends many of whom are also in leadership roles in the arts, so we make the most of connecting when and as we can to discuss our work and our support for each other. One of my dearest colleagues and friends, Louise Bezzina is currently Artistic Director of Brisbane Festival. I have learned a lot from Lou over the years. We have worked closely in countless, unusual situations and have shared skills and supported each other through thick and thin. Women supporting each other in their journey is vital and inspires me constantly. Our First Nations leaders also inspire me with their strength, courage and determination. I also draw upon the knowledge and skills of the Board and have particularly learned from my Chair, who is a font of financial knowledge and business acumen; and our Board Secretary who is another intelligent, forceful female leader.
What was the best advice that you have been given?
Get Up Again. It was something that just seemed to be drummed into me at a young age – work hard and get up when you get knocked down. Resilience and resolve have been the keys to me continuing a career in the arts and making a success of it.
How have you personally measured your success?
I believe in the value of art and culture to our society. I believe in the contribution we make, the good, the joy we bring to lives as well as the enormous economic benefit.
The arts are a multi-billion-dollar contributor to the Australian economy. According to figures recently released by the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion to Australia’s economy (2016-17). Metro Arts is a small but vital contributor to this economy especially through our professional development and career pathway opportunities for artists. We know we are making an impact because there are thousands of artists, producers, companies and arts leaders on and behind stages and in galleries, diverse communities and workplaces across the country who had their start at Metro Arts. Two examples are our Patron, Wesley Enoch (who is now Artistic Director of Sydney Festival) and Deborah Mailman. Wes and Deborah created the outstanding piece “Seven Stages of Grieving” at Metro Arts in 1996. Opportunities like this for emerging artists to learn, experiment and grow are key to building a healthy artistic economy and a better society; and it’s what I’m committed to.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
In 2018, for our festival on death, dying and living a good life, Deathfest Metro Arts commissioned Flipside Circus to work with guests and families at Hummingbird House, Queensland’s only children’s hospice. This facility is run by a phenomenal team lead by Dr Fiona Hawthorne – an inspiring female leader. We went into Hummingbird House to engage with community members including the children at end-of-life, their siblings, their parents and their professional carers to holistically examine life and death for a community bound by these thoughts daily. The resulting circus work, We Live Here examined life, living and death from a child/young person’s perspective. This was an enormously challenging work to initiate, create and present due to the subject matter. The children at end of life in Hummingbird House have short lives but they have important lives filled with vital moments and memories and we wanted to capture these. Along the way, I learned about palliative care for children, the remarkable resilience of humans, and a best practice model when telling the true stories of others. The work has been an enormous success with outstanding reviews and audiences but most importantly I know we added joy to the lives of the children and families of Hummingbird House. Businesses like Hummingbird House, and the tireless work done by the team deserve our admiration and support.
Where you see yourself and the business in 10 years?
2030! Metro Arts will be firmly established in its West End home connecting across the city and the nation with artists and communities. The business will be thriving thanks to our Future Fund, and the hard work of 2019 and 2020. We will be commissioning more works and employing more artists and bringing stunning opportunities and art to all. The business will continue to partner with our First Nations artists and leaders and culturally and linguistically diverse artists offering stories from many and all. I hope we will all be joyful and healthy and connected.
2030! Me….? A mystery yet to unfold I think…..
Who are the women around you that allow you to thrive?
Metro Arts has been a for-purpose, cultural community hub for 40 years and over that time there have been a number of wonderful, committed CEOs who have taken the business from strength to strength, the past two both women who served the organisation for over 10 years each. In taking on the role as CEO and Creative Director of this iconic organisation three years ago I was landing in giant footsteps. These had been inspiring, gutsy, female leaders who worked tirelessly to keep the business operational – a brave approach I inherited and one I continue today.
My incredible network of women who support me every step of the way are my friends, sisters, mum and aunts. They all offer me something special. As Bette would say they are the wind beneath my wings; and as Beyonce says ‘the women keep the tempo’! Never forget it.
What does being named the 2020 Telstra Queensland Business Woman of the Year mean to you?
Our organisation, our sector and our artists are often at-risk and a strong business approach needs to be adopted to ensure sustainability – so it’s nice to be recognised for these strengths, that are particularly evident during the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This Award shows artists are good business people, and we’re innovative and entrepreneurial.
I’m very conscious of the huge challenges faced by the creative sector at this time, both in urban centres and regionally. Arts organisations are vitally important to the broader ecology, and to the vibrancy of a thriving nation, so I’ll continue to call on all levels of government, but particularly our Federal Government, to recognise the tremendous value of our cultural sector. I urge the Government to increase its support to the cultural sector at this critical time, so we can reopen with strength, post-lockdown. The creative sector is going to be crucial to re-establishing community spirit, rebuilding economies and bringing back a sense of hope.