I moved to Australia and became the youngest person to run an art gallery

Kerry woman Nicola Holly was appointed director of the Stanthorpe Regional Art Gallery at just 26

Nicola Holly is originally from Tralee but now lives in Brisbane, where she works as the galleries manager for the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University in Brisbane

Nicola Holly is originally from Tralee but now lives in Brisbane, where she works as the galleries manager for the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University in Brisbane

 

Working Abroad Q&A: Nicola Holly from Tralee, Co Kerry  is the galleries manager for the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University in Brisbane.

When did you leave Ireland, and what were your reasons for leaving?

I left Ireland in 2010, after graduating from UCC. The global financial crisis didn’t help my prospects of working in the arts here. There wasn’t many other options other than leave.

I arrived in Brisbane as a fresh-faced, somewhat naïve graduate and sent out a generic email to all the museums and galleries in the city. Thankfully, a commercial gallery owner agreed to see me. After we met, it transpired  his mother was Irish and although she had come to Australia at a young age, still identified Ireland as home. With no knowledge of the Australian art market, he took me on as a gallery assistant and I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for Bruce Heiser I would have never gotten a start over here.

Since then I have worked in many galleries and museums in Australia. In 2013 at the age of 26, I became the youngest public gallery director in Queensland when I took up a position at the Stanthorpe Regional Art Gallery, which is two and a half hours south-west of Brisbane.

Grey St Gallery in Brisbane, Australia
Grey St Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, which is run by Holly

Tell us about your career there now?

I now work for the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University in Brisbane as their galleries manager. We have five art galleries within the university with our most prestigious gallery located off site in the city centre of Brisbane. We aim to foster experimentation and innovation while providing a forum for research, ideas and exchange. Exhibition programming varies across our the five gallery spaces, with a primary focus on contemporary art and design, research, curatorial projects and connections between Queensland and international artists.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

Although quite clichéd, no two days are the same at the galleries. I could spend a day installing an exhibition or in meetings. Alternatively, I could be researching exhibition ideas, creating marketing collateral or preparing for an opening that night. We have an extremely quick turnaround for exhibitions but I tend to work well in this fast-paced environment.

What challenges do you face in your work there?

My strong accent! Although the initial obstacle was my lack of knowledge about Australian art, I overcame this by reading many academic journals and publications along with visiting other galleries frequently.

If you wanted to come and work in Ireland what are the opportunities like for your chosen career?

Every now and again out of curiosity I will browse around Irish job sites for positions in my field. However, they seem rather limited and the salaries are vastly different.

Is Australia a barren desert when it some to the Arts?

Australia is a thriving hub when it comes to the arts. They are on the cutting edge of innovation and creativity and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing the sector grow. Griffith University has the country’s leading Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art programme and it’s been a particular highlight for me to watch what the artists are producing from there.

What is it like living in Brisbane?

Brisbane is the perfect city, it is continuously warm all year around and is easy to navigate. It combines the excitement of city life with the chilled-out Aussie lifestyle in a very seamless manner. The university is located in Southbank, which is on the southern banks of the Brisbane River (hence the name!). It has 17 hectares of lush parklands, amazing bars and eateries yet you can walk back into the city centre in around 10 minutes. I’ll often find myself having to stop and take a moment to realise how lucky I am to work and live here.

Do the Irish fit in there?

Unlike Sydney or Melbourne there isn’t a particular central suburb where the Irish can be found in Brisbane. Despite that, I find that we fit in extremely well here. The Irish and Australian lifestyles are very similar in so far as we are laid back and enjoy a laugh but are also not afraid of hard work.

I’m fortunate enough to live with my best friend from Tralee and we’re essentially each other’s family over here. I’m also the vice-president of the Irish Australian Support Association, a Irish government-funded organisation supporting the Irish community in Queensland in times of need or distress. Volunteering with IASAQ has been an eye-opening experience. We provide a vital service; nobody sets out to get in difficulty over here and it’s been humbling to assist people in need.

Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?

Without a doubt working in Australian has presented me with far greater opportunities than home could have afforded me. When I graduated a government hiring ban had been implemented so there was no possibility of me getting a position in one of the big museums or galleries.

There is a large guilt associated with living abroad but I know in terms of a career in the arts I had no other choice but to leave

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in the Arts abroad?

Do you research about the sector and attend as many events as you can. The arts circle is still small in Brisbane, so it’s important to get out there and form social connections. I’ve also found that having an accent gets you remembered easily (whether that’s a good or bad thing!)

“I genuinely see Brisbane as the ideal city” - Nicola Holly is originally from Tralee
“I genuinely see Brisbane as the ideal city” - Nicola Holly is originally from Tralee

What do you think your future holds?

I often dally with the idea of undertaking a PhD or further study, but then realise how time poor I am at the moment and put the idea to the back of my head. I would like to continue working in the arts in Queensland. I have no desire to move interstate as I genuinely see Brisbane as the ideal city.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

There is not a day goes by where I don’t miss my family or friends. I lament how how seldom we get to see each other, but the upside is that the times we have together are incredibly special. I often think about what I gave up to move here as there is a large guilt associated with living abroad but I know in terms of a career in the arts I had no other choice but to leave.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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