An interview with expat Jo Higgins about becoming an ‘art writer’ and living abroad
Art is everywhere. It’s in the galleries, in the streets, in our homes and on the web. Paris, London, Berlin, New York, Sydney – they all have unique art environments. These cities are in constant creative conversation with one another. Exchanging, adopting and adapting each other’s art. Museum websites, international art magazines, social network sites all create a wide network of artistic knowledge and appreciation. Geographical restraints are an insignificant excuse when art is considered in our hi-tech, hi-speed world.
But surely there’s more to art than a computer screen? The most rewarding artistic experiences occur in the physical. For the Sydney art world this could seem a challenge – sometimes the closest we get to major centres of art is on a website or in a textbook. There is a yearning for the real thing. Jo Higgins understands and has experienced this feeling of artistic isolation. From the harsh Australian outback Jo’s passionate investment in art has taken her from drawing rainbows on walls to reviewing exhibitions in the galleries of London.
N.S: What is your earliest creative memory?
J.H: My earliest ‘art’ memory is when I was about five, pointing the finger of blame at my younger brother when my mum demanded to know who had drawn the rather large rainbow on our bedroom wall. Problem was, after drawing the rainbow I wrote ‘by Jo’ underneath, so the jig was up.
N.S: You studied Art Theory at COFA, when did you decide you wanted a life in the art world?
J.H: I always loved art at school – I think because it was one of the few classes that didn’t involve extensive homework! But when I left high school I never considered a career in the arts, despite doing especially well in art in the HSC. I took a gap year and while I was overseas I went to the Tate Britain, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and everywhere in between. It was just the most brilliant experience. Seeing the paintings I’d studied in textbooks – Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe at Musee D’Orsay in Paris, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon at MoMA in New York – come to life. It’s a hideous cliché but it was standing in front of these works, feeling this sense of awe and experiencing their incredible vibrancy, that made me study at COFA.
N.S: While working in Sydney you wore many hats, all related to the arts, what were some of those hats?
J.O: I often joke that I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none!
While I was at university I worked part-time in various areas at the Lawson-Menzies Auction House. I learnt how to handle art works, take phone bids, look for silver markings and handle referral[s].
Later I worked as a part-time gallery assistant for Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art in Paddington.
And the rest of the time I was that that strange title, ‘art writer’. I was the online editor for State of the Arts for nearly two years, writing reviews, features and interviews on all aspects of Australian arts.
Then I freelanced. I wrote for Australian Art Collector and Artlink. I also did some work for the Australia Council, researching funding recipients and writing for their internal and external publications. Then I had a short stint lecturing at NIDA, directing students as part of their design course about trends in contemporary art making – researching, the communication, learning how to use Powerpoint!
Then there was my time at the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online. I started working as a content miner in 2006. After about six months I was unofficially promoted to Content Copy Editor and was then asked to apply for the position of Editor. I was in this role for 12 months, during which time we launched the site. I’m really proud of the work and time spent on the DAAO. It was such a great team and I’m eternally thankful for the opportunities. I think Australian art history can be perceived as quite unfashionable, particularly by Australian art students. But the amount I learnt and the incredible stories we came across gave me the hugest appreciation for Australian art.
Then I left to move to London.
My career in Sydney was certainly diverse but I think the more you learn about the mechanics of the art world, the better you are placed to work in it and write about it.
N.S: What was your motivation to move abroad?
J.O: I’d always said if I did further study I would do it to be overseas ,both for the challenge, and the opportunity to get up close to some world-class art collections. After a lot of looking around, I ended up doing a MA in Contemporary Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. I wanted a course that had an art theory component but also a practical, professional element. Right from the first day they told us it was all very well to be able to write 4000 brilliant words but if you couldn’t get up and talk confidently about a work of art in front of a group of people with only 10 minutes preparation, then you’re really not employable in the arts. It was a pretty frank piece of advice but the course was great. Only in Europe can you have a five-day school trip to the Venice Biennale or an assignment that requires you to visit Chris Ofili’s Turner Prize winning painting at Tate Modern or have the chance to hear Yinka Shonibare talk about his practice. In that respect, moving to London was a no brainer.
N.S: What makes you want to stay in London, and what makes you want to come home?
J.O: It sounds so obvious but really, it’s about the availability and access to world-class exhibitions and to conquer the challenge of succeeding professionally here. That, and the chance to do so much travel. As for what makes me want to come home? Family. Friends. Bondi. Sunshine.
N.S: What is the most challenging aspect of being an ‘art writer[’,] etc?
J.O: There’s a lot that’s quite challenging about being an art writer, the most obvious being that in reality, you’re probably never going to be able to do it full-time unless you work as a staff writer on a magazine or newspaper. I call myself an art writer – that’s what I write on those stupid landing cards whenever I fly anywhere – but in reality I could use a number of labels. I find ‘freelance’ covers a lot of sins too. You write about art because you love it, or because you feel you have something to say. You certainly don’t do it for the money and so rejection can be quite a personal thing sometimes and you have to not lose faith in your ability or lose sight of why you wanted to write in the first place.
N.S: What’s the most rewarding?
J.O: It would be disingenuous to say that seeing your name in print isn’t a little bit of a thrill but it’s about so much more than that. One of my most favourite memories was talking to quite a well-known artist about the photographer Darren Sylvester. This guy said to me, ‘You know, I never really liked Darren’s work, I never really got it. But then I read this really interesting article about his work and it completely changed my opinion.’ I asked him about the article and it turned out that it was an article that I had written! He was mortified but it was an incredible moment for me because a) I realised it wasn’t just my Mum who read everything I wrote and b) I realised that I had the ability to write in a manner that allowed people a different way of thinking about something. You can’t put a price on that kind of discovery and to this day I’m motivated by the thought that someone might read something I’ve written, someone who might not like art, might not ‘get it’ and be curious enough, or open-minded enough to think, ‘I want to see that for myself.’
Jo’s experiences as an art writer is a common story for many of her peers. Many Australian art writers are in overseas art capitals where they find unique opportunities and challenges. Challenges that cannot be as easily accessed at home. Cities like London cater to the enthusiasm of people like Jo Higgins. Her time in Sydney fed her love for art and writing. It was only in London that allowed her easy and flexible access to the highest standards of art in the world. There she will continue living and working with no intention to return home, not for all the sunshine in Bondi.