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A country practice: Portia Lindsay’s journey into regional arts development

Former bookseller and NSW Writers’ Centre program officer Portia Lindsay has found her calling in regional arts development and now runs the Mudgee Readers’ Festival. She shares her career journey. 

After leaving school in a country town with not much more than a love of reading to direct me, I got my book-industry start in one of a handful of WH Smith stores in Australia, before they became part of the Angus & Robertson chain. Watching our beloved store get taken over by an ethos of ‘supermarket bookselling’ propelled me out of full-time retail and back to university to study English literature, while also picking up part-time gigs at Better Read Than Dead and UNSW Bookshop.

By this stage—despite loving many aspects of bookselling (such as talking about the books, touching the books, smelling the books)—I was ready for a break from selling the books. I moved to the NSW Writers’ Centre and—in my spare time—Seizure Online. Working with both organisations enabled me to develop an incredible network of talented people and taught me an awful lot about programming, editing, communications, funding, professionalism and the Australian literary landscape.

Most of all though, the Writers’ Centre helped me to realise that what I wanted to pursue was regional arts development—and that no matter how much you might advocate for regional arts, it’s difficult to get any projects off the ground from an urban locale without support or funding (neither of which I had), so the projects that I wanted to work on would only be possible with a shift back to the country.

Flying the coop

A few factors led me to Mudgee—a literary festival that seemed ready to level up, an otherwise vibrant arts scene with plenty of opportunities, amazing coffee and wine, a friendly community—and once I’d settled my new pet chickens in, I became heavily involved with the Mudgee Readers’ Festival.

Since regional arts projects are often a labour of love, to pay for chicken upkeep I started working for the local library and now also handle communications and professional development projects for regional arts board Orana Arts. This combination of projects is perfect for me: I have been given a wonderful crash course in multiple artforms while also being able to advocate for the place of literature in a vibrant creative culture.

I like to have a variety of projects on the go at any given time (though this does sometimes result in overload!). I also highly value the flexibility that comes with being able to work anywhere that has a power point, WiFi and coffee (highly recommend Warbëhr Design and the Brewery if you’re freelancing your way through Mudgee!).

I’ve been extremely lucky to have had so many amazing colleagues—some of whom are still among my best friends—who have taught me a lot. Julia Tsalis at the Writers’ Centre and David Henley and Alice Grundy at Seizure continue to support my regional arts work from the city and I’m extremely fortunate that the terrifically talented Seizure team comes to Mudgee each year to participate in events, as do other generous friends from bookshops, libraries and the Writers’ Centre. They are all welcomed by cool and creative locals including author Summer Land, artist Sam Paine and people working in performing arts, visual arts and the local library.

To be able to bring together regional creatives and visiting writers in interesting ways—and getting the local community excited about that—are some of the things that I love about programming and promoting a literary festival. The 2016 program expanded the Mudgee Readers’ Festival in a big way and is certainly—as part of a passionate volunteer team—my greatest professional achievement to date. The success of this event—we were recently awarded a Mid-Western Region Arts Award—makes me excited for the future of regional arts and for literacy and literature here in Mudgee, as planning for this year’s MRF (12-13 August in case you don’t already have it in your diaries) gets into full swing!

What I’m reading

I’ve been racing to the last page of some great Australian novels, including Holly Throsby’s excellent small-town mystery Goodwood (A&U) and Sunni Overend’s stylish and sexy The Dangers of Truffle Hunting (HarperCollins). I’ve just started Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (Bloomsbury) and am loving it so far. Also dipping in and out of short-story collections by Roanna Gonsalves (The Permanent Resident, UWA Publishing) and Tara June Winch (After the Carnage, UQP).

Image credit: Sam Paine


Category: Features Profile