The creative conference helping women to collaborate, not compete

Organisers and participants in the Make Nice conference, a conference for women working in the creative fields, in Surry ...

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Professional networking events are many people’s idea of a personal hell; none more so than Ngaio Parr, a Sydney illustrator who admits to “sitting at the back” and “pretending to text on my phone” when she finds herself attending one.

But that discomfort – and an exasperation at the continuing dominance of older white men and frustration with the lack of support and collaboration among female creatives in Sydney – is exactly what drove the self-described introvert to launch her own, woman-only “un-conference” as part of Vivid Ideas last year.

This year, the event – part-earnestly, part-ironically given the title Make Nice – will run independently of Vivid, with a launch party and exhibition of local female artists tonight followed by a day of talking (or as Parr puts it, “therapy”) on Saturday. 

The diverse line-up includes local and international artists, designers, writers, dancers and people involved in the logistics of turning creativity into a viable career. All of them are women, as will be their audience. 

The choice to make the event women-only was tough, Parr says, as she was acutely aware of the potential backlash. But her priority was to make it a really safe and supportive space for women to be completely open about their experiences of sexism and other traditionally taboo topics. 

“It’s not so much about excluding men, we love men and there’s a massive role for men in creating leadership roles for women. But to start off with, we just wanted to create a really supportive atmosphere for women.”

Having grown up in Queensland before establishing a design career in New York, Parr found moving to Sydney almost four years ago to be “incredibly isolating”. Among female creatives especially, she noticed a competitive hangover that she blames on a perception that the market here is a small one with only limited space for women.

Whereas boys and men are encouraged to band together, Parr says, there’s no equivalent “girls’ club”. And she hopes to change that. 

“It’s about creating a community where everyone helps one another, because it’s understood that a rising tide lifts all boats, instead of that there’s just one position and all women have to fight each other to get it,” she says. “Because that’s just not true.”

Sydney city councillor and former Vivid Ideas director Jess Scully, who will be facilitating the Town Hall session ‘I’ve Started My Thing, Now What?’ on Saturday, says the mindset that “everybody is your competition” is one she has noticed over the years as well. And while the local market may remain relatively small, the internet has completely changed that, she says. 

“The world is your market now, but the world isn’t necessarily your community. And if you want to be supported in your creative practice, you really have to connect with real people in a physical place.”

In her years with Vivid, Scully says she noticed women were far more likely to say no to invitations than men. Women are far more likely than men to assume “there must be someone better than me to do this,” she says, “or feeling inadequate or shy or not feeling comfortable with speaking in public.”

It’s about creating a community where everyone helps one another, because it’s understood that a rising tide lifts all boats

Ngaio Parr

It becomes a vicious circle, with men making up the vast majority of speakers, exhibitors and performers in turn cementing the belief in women that the space for them is even more limited than it might really be. 

Amy Nadaskay, a creative director who moved to Sydney from New York almost 14 years ago and will co-host the session with Scully, says she has come to realise the importance of self-belief and sees events like Make Nice as an essential part of instilling women with that confidence. 

One of the biggest issues she’s noticed in the arts scene here, apart from the boys’ club, is the dreaded “tall poppy syndrome” – which she says is slowly fading.  

“There’s a lot of fantastic creatives and a lot of smart people, but that fear factor of standing out – which is what we help everyone do – has been such a battle to overcome.”

Nadaskay’s design business Monogram is built around helping people differentiate themselves, and she says the rise of social media and changing attitudes of Millennials has helped dial down the cultural cringe. 

For local artist Kitty Callaghan though, the biggest issue facing creative people of any gender in this city is obvious: Rent.

“Being in a creative industry in a place like Sydney is hard. I’m lucky because I live in a creative co-op in Newtown, it’s government-owned, but I think there’s only a couple of other ones. I’m very lucky to be able to have affordable rent but also live amongst so many creative people,” she says.

Which is why, apart from making the “un-conference” as relaxed and interactive as possible, Parr wants it to go beyond providing “inspiration” and frankly address the less sexy aspects of making a creative career. The aspects that nobody sees on Instagram. 

“Personal finance is something women are almost never taught about. If you work for yourself, how much tax do you pay, how much super to do you put aside, and if you can’t afford to do that, are you setting yourself up for a lifetime of hardship?

“Inspiration is great and useful, but we are so bombarded by other people’s amazing work all the time on every other platform you can think of, that it’s actually those kinds of super basic tasks that people want to know about.”

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