Esther Anatolitis shows leadership at Regional Arts Victoria

Esther Anatolitis is an advocate for good leadership in the arts.

Esther Anatolitis is an advocate for good leadership in the arts.

The director of Regional Arts Victoria, Esther Anatolitis, recently gave her colleagues the gift of a beautiful hour glass, not to remind them to get to their next meeting on time, but rather to take a moment for quiet mindfulness.

This approach is one of the things that makes her leadership style standout and speaks volumes about her views on what constitutes good leadership.

“People in the arts have made a choice to live lives at a high level of intensity. We immerse ourselves in work and must take our bodies with us,” Esther said.

“At RAV we talk a lot about daily practice and exercise and no one is allowed to eat their lunch at their desk. We need to create a balance to make sure within working hours we are providing opportunities for everyone to think outside the box. We know in the not-for-profit environment we can’t afford salaries like in the business sector so are incumbent to provide the most stimulating and inspiring space possible for employees.”  

This space must provide the right mindset to assist the health of employees to do jobs in the best possible way to support artists and audiences.

Leadership that is hierarchical and top down is not the most effective and certainly not the most interesting style of leadership. - Esther Anatolitis

She likens this attitude to an in-flight aeroplane safety demonstration which tells you when the masks drop in the case of an emergency to fit your own mask first before helping others.

“Only with great focus and care in looking after ourselves can we then help others,” she said.

Esther’s many years working in the arts in Australia has helped her hone her ideas on leadership and define what good leadership looks like.

“(For me) leadership is the compelling communication of a vision that inspires action. It’s important for those in leadership roles to inspire collaboration and develop in others new ways of thinking in constructive ways. As leaders we apply our values and create the environment to inspire others to do the same.”

Her own style of leadership she describes as “distributed”.

“By that I mean leadership is most effective when distributed across an organisation, industry and community. Advocacy is an important part of what we do. Within the organisation I strive for a style of collaboration. Leadership that is hierarchical and top down is not the most effective and certainly not the most interesting style of leadership,” she said.

With her impressive arts credentials Esther is no stranger to big, collaborative projects. As CEO of Melbourne Fringe from 2008 to 2012 she left an “indelible and transformative impact on the organisation,” according to board Chair, Rinske Ginsberg.

She has also left her mark at SYN Media where she did a stint in 2008, at Craft Victoria in 2007 to 2008 and the Emerging Writers’ Festival from 2005 to 2007.

Her leadership skills are welcome on the boards and organisations she is involved with including the Programming Advisory Committee for the 2014 Melbourne Writers' Festival, the Australian Children's Theatre Foundation as a trustee, and the Artistic Advisory Panel for Art & Edges, the 2014 Regional Arts Australia Summit in Kalgoorlie-Boulder this October. Art & Edges will  the biggest meeting of arts practitioners across the country with Esther the Ambassador for the Special Agents Program.

In her current role at RAV, which she has held since 2012, she recently oversaw the RAV presents, Small Town Transformations, on behalf of the Victorian Government. The program has seen five regional Victorian towns receive $350,000 for a significant artistic project with a lasting legacy to transform their town.

Generational change has forced a change in leadership and how it is attained she believes. In the previous generations there was a certain seniority where you were promoted in due course not because of any true talent for leadership.

“But it is a specialisation and not for everyone,” Esther says. The next generation she says will have specific training and programs giving them a career trajectory.

“Among my colleagues the question of leadership is an open one. We’re constantly examining our practice and our approach,” she says.

Esther sees style and leadership as intrinsically connected.

“A unique and recognisable sense of style - the way you go about things and present yourself - speak, dress and confidence are all crucial to leadership.”

This she thinks can be overwhelming to new leaders as it takes time to develop the confidence to express your interests, passion and what you are most excited about.

Her style of leadership works off two contradictory principles. The first is the belief that ‘structure sets you free’ and that in creating the best framework you enable everyone to contribute.

The second is that after setting up your framework plan for ‘unintended consequences’ or “don’t plan yourself into a corner by having frameworks that are too closed.” Constructive disruption she explains, allows different kinds of questions to be asked.

“People talk of authenticity and trust when talking of good leadership. When leadership is good and the environment is right people are free to be critical and creative which is the only way we can be greater than the sum of our parts.” - Esther Anatolitis

As a leader in her field Esther is eternally grateful to the many people who have been influences and mentors over the years. An important mentor has been Maudie Palmer, AO, one of Australia’s greatest art curators who was founding director of Heide Park and Art Gallery. Maudie is someone who generates great thinking around her Esther says, by building commitment and trust.

“After spending time with Maudie it often feels like my mind has been enlarged.”

As is often the case with female leaders, Esther shared a strong bond with her Greek born father who was a woods craftsman. Strati Anatolitis transformed the stables at the back of the family home into a workshop.

“He had a powerful belief that if you have the right tools, materials and skills there is nothing you can’t make,” she said. He would transform things and was always thinking of the next project in a process his daughter describes as “quietly effective but clear and brilliant.”

Today when she thinks of strong leadership fellow arts director Jean Maurice Varone comes to mind. She believes Varone, who directs organisations - the Air and Art Foundation and the R and Art organisation - shows strong and thoughtful leadership.

The R and Art organisation oversees an annual series of temporary public projects in the small alpine village of Vercorin in Switzerland while the foundation presents monumental permanent artworks in the Swiss alps by artists from around the world.

She said to create these works Jean must have a vision of the landscape for the entire village, a big vision as well as gaining the support and rapport of residents as it requires the participation of the the entire town.

“He has a great way of being able to paint a picture with words which is a skill of a leader - the ability to be able to pitch an idea before there is even anything to show,” Esther said.

This requires a sympathetic and intelligent approach as he needs to be able to talk about the work at both a high level and at a local level for the townspeople which is a rare balance she said.

Good leadership she says is alive, changeable and tangible.

“People talk of authenticity and trust when talking of good leadership. When leadership is good and the environment is right people are free to be critical and creative which is the only way we can be greater than the sum of our parts.”

Read previous articles in our series on leadership: 

Part 1: From battlefield to boardroom: Ben Roberts-Smith

Part 2: RAI's chief executive Su McCluskey on putting regional areas in the spotlight.

Part four in the Leadership series continues next week with radio commentator and sport advocate Sue Brown.

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