Judith is the General Manager for Starcatchers,Scotland’s National Arts and Early Years organisation. Before taking up this role, Judith built what she calls ‘a portfolio career before there was a term for it’. She has worked in music production and event management with a diverse portfolio of performing groups, artists, festivals and arts organisations. Her career has been an expansion and diversification from areas of personal knowledge into other art forms and types of events, with a lasting commitment to work that understands and responds to its audience. She tries to follow her own advice for success in the arts and cultural industry by being nice, kind, and genuinely interested in people. While she describes herself as a realist, she rates positivity as more important, saying ‘I don’t tend to be negative and look at things as obstructed or difficult’. Overall, Judith has a sense of intuition and self-knowledge that has guided her career choices. She has a strong commitment to art that works for a community, and a knack for efficient project management.
Community Work and Project Management
Judith explains that she has seen two sides of the relationship between long-term employed roles and freelance work. Earlier in her career, she left an employed role and noticed many of her skills were transferable to freelance work, forming an essential bedrock for success. We recognise this professional toolbox that can be carried from employed roles to freelance, but the reverse is equally true. Now that she has shifted away from freelance work, Judith sees how those ten years of experience strengthened her project management skills with a different outlook on project life-cycles and team collaboration. For example, freelance projects have a beginning, middle, and end that must be delivered to, in a way that the work of a full-time organisation often doesn’t. So Judith likes to create some! The Starcatchers team has crafted more progress markers and outcomes, chunking large projects up into smaller parts.
Other skills Judith feels are essential to freelance success include collaboration, communication, staying on budget, delivering on time, splitting tasks and responsibilities, and balancing all of this via time management across multiple projects and within the demands of your personal life (phew!). Regarding managing personal workload, Judith recommends getting comfortable saying ‘yes, I’d love to, and I can do it next Tuesday’. Look at your schedule, then communicate exactly when you have time. Schedule non-urgent tasks when you can focus on them, try to break up your to do list day by day, and be mindful when asking others for help. If everyone gives more thought to planning their time, overall a team can become more economical and efficient.
Judith also discusses the decision to look for a long-term employed role, which led her to Starcatchers. While she has worked within the idea of arts for a social purpose (which drove the creation of the Nevis Ensemble), and understands the value of grassroots, participatory work (what is often referred to as ‘community work’), the importance of community runs under all her work. Judith noticed that her underlying rationale for choosing freelance projects had shifted over time as she gravitated toward those with a clear purpose to deliver for a targeted audience, because she feels that ‘good work is always made intelligently for a specific community’. She was interested in moving to a dedicated role where she could focus in depth on one community. At Starcatchers she supports multiple strands of work which all have children at their heart, and she is now able to work on projects with longer timescales, larger scope, and more expansive goals than as a freelancer.
Now, while the dry nuts and bolts of an organisation that sit with a general manager may only be interesting to the person responsible, Judith enjoys working through them at Starcatchers. Admin and organisational stewardship of policies for IT, health and safety, and finance are a vital part of the organisation’s success, even if being the only person deeply interested in them can sometimes feel isolating. Most important to Judith is the strong commitment Starcatchers has to their wee audience members. All her work serves children, meeting her desire to work on projects ‘that clearly deliver for the audience, with the audience at heart’. She emphasises the importance of being joyful at work (even over dry nuts and bolts) because ‘our work has to be joyful to be successful -- it’s not a serious thing that we do’ when working with play, creativity, and imagination.
It will be interesting to see what strengths and solutions grow out of the current situation, as organisations rethink their processes and many staff work from home. Judith feels in a full-time role there is often ‘less of an immediate urgency to plan your week (than as a freelancer) because you’re just there’ and constantly able to respond to short-notice needs. This availability and reflexivity breaks down with home working, and it becomes pressing to re-imagine expectations and processes. Now that her team is working from home, ‘work plans are more important than ever’ to keep track of progress and deadlines, for example cataloguing progress across the team in a spreadsheet or planning app. The way we are responding now can inform how we work in the future. Some of the skills that we hone now may relate closely to the strengths of freelancers, as many people find themselves suddenly juggling more work (rather than less), redefining collaboration, communicating while apart, and managing their time more efficiently.
Unplugged Sessions Common Questions
If you could have lunch with someone who works in the creative industries (dead or alive), who would that be?
What 3 words would you use to describe the arts and culture?
Connection over contact.
Produced and interviewed by Christopher Buttigieg at Hello Creative
Written by Julian Almeida
Photo credit to Andrew Weild Photography