John O’Brien, the brand-new Executive Director of Arts Upper Hunter, brings an intriguing slate of skills to the job, with a background in music, film, TV, improvisation, museums, travel writing and community groups.
Arts Upper Hunter (AUH) is one of 14 Regional Arts Development Organisations across the state. It’s a key community group for local creative people and organisations; AUH provides, supports and promotes opportunities for those involved in the creative industries across the Shires of Dungog, Muswellbrook, Singleton and Upper Hunter.
“Creativity and the arts have been crucial to my life,” says John, “so it’s wonderful to be able to sing the praises of this industry and help strengthen the network round here and build support for others.”
John’s background is eclectic, from editing labels in the Powerhouse Museum and London’s Natural History Museum to making short films, writing episodes for TV shows and creating TV series, to a more recent shift into music and live performance. “There’ve been some leftfield highlights along the way, such as driving around Estonia rewriting a guidebook to the country. And some fantastic experiences in this very region, mentoring drama students in Singleton or Aberdeen, for example. I know what it’s like to connect with your local community, how hungry people are to be offered the chance to access new skills, and how buzzy it is to be learning or teaching those skills!”
For five years, John was co-coordinator of Dungog Community College. “In community education it’s all about finding out what’s needed, matching it to what’s possible and seeing if you can put a course or event together, whether that’s A Day In The Roses or a Certificate in Aged Care. It’s the same principle with the creative industries – trying to match needs with opportunities, hopes with happenings.”
John’s musical life includes playing the vibraphone and Pianica for trio Fancy and duo The De Factos. Most recently, he has been a founding member of the Performing Artists of Dungog non-profit community group, which is trying to nurture a live performance culture in that Shire. “We made a great start, but we are a bit snookered by Corona Virus, at the moment,” he confesses.
But if there’s a renewed energy in many parts of the bush, it’s partly a positive side-effect to the otherwise dark effects of Covid. Tourists and tree-changers are coming to the country in unprecedented numbers. Benefits are being reaped. There’s an energy around, according to the Chair of Arts Upper Hunter, Ivan Skaines. “This is a great time to be promoting the arts and creative industries. One example: shops and galleries opening in main streets, which can be good for the economy, for local artists and for visitors wanting things to do.”
Says John: “Of course the flip side of that is shops closed because of lockdown, loneliness, mental health problems. I see the arts as sites of connection and discovery – but you have to reach people and talk to them in their language.”
As for Arts Upper Hunter itself, says Ivan, “Our priorities include building on existing partnerships and developing new ones, generally providing day-to-day and strategic support for creative people working in the Upper Hunter, and increasing and diversifying our income.”
“Which is to say,” says John, “to help people reach their hopes and dreams. And how do you do that? It’s all about the local – a strong creative ecosystem is resilient, produces remarkable works, and provides oxygen for everyone.”
John O’Brien will happily take an interview and answer any questions about Arts Upper Hunter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on 0427 290 209.
Photo caption: John O’Brien the new Executive Director of Arts Upper Hunter. Photographer Donna Cavanough, September 2021.