Work based learning

Harpreet Kaur: on the road

by Kim Evans

Harpreet Kaur is a creative producer and arts project manager.  She describes her 2008 Powerbrokers International Leadership Placement with the Beijing Modern Dance Company as life changing.  She says the experience helped her to gain leadership confidence and really focus on the journey she wanted to go on.  Harpreet has since explored innovative projects through travelling and working internationally; she is now based at Regional Arts Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

Harpreet Kaur is a creative producer and arts project manager.  She also has experience in marketing and audience development.  She has always had a strong interest in international arts and wanted to develop her skills by working in a completely different cultural and social context.

Since she finished her Powerbrokers International Leadership Placement in Beijing, she has taken a twelve-month sabbatical, visiting South America, South East Asia and her motherland, India.  She is now living in Melbourne, Australia and is working at Regional Arts Victoria. Her ambition is to create projects that build bridges between different cultures, and find innovative solutions to current global social, economic and environmental issues.

The placement in Beijing was a life-changing experience for me.  I am a lot more confident now. My journey is not going to be a linear one.  Maybe it will take me longer but it will be all the better for that.

Harpreet describes herself as a self-starter and someone who is always looking for development opportunities.  She recognises that the cultural sector doesn’t necessarily provide a career development path or recognise the fact that a lot of creative practitioners and managers want to change direction as they develop.  ‘Somehow,’ she says, ‘the expectation is that you will just keep on moving up in a straight line.  In my case in my case, perhaps I should have gone from Marketing Assistant to Marketing Manager to Director. That is what is often expected but I realised that is not what I wanted to do.’

Harpreet had always wanted to work internationally but when she saw the advertisement for the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Powerbrokers International Leadership Placement with the Beijing Modern Dance Company, it wasn’t the fact that it was in Beijing that made her apply.  It was the fact that it was a producer post. China was just a bonus.

I’d done a lot in the arts, but I never felt comfortable calling myself a producer.  When people asked what I did, I said an arts manager.  Maureen Salmon of Freshwaters Consultancy, who led the placement programme, started calling me a producer.  Even now, I feel I don’t quite have the right to use that title.  But other people, particularly here in Australia where I am now based, see I have those abilities and that’s what they see me doing in the future.

The international placement made Harpreet focus on the journey she wanted to go on.  The pre-placement work confirmed her instinct that she was good with people but she hadn’t realised quite how important her networking skills were and where that might lead her professionally. 

I’m good at winning others over and that is what producers have to do all the time.  I think those strengths have come out in me more since the placement and I’m using them more strategically.

She arrived in Beijing in November 2008 and spent five months there. It was a period of tremendous highs and lows. She hadn’t anticipated the challenge of being in a country where she couldn’t speak the language.  ‘I’m Networking Queen and suddenly I couldn’t communicate. I felt terribly isolated to begin with. For me the placement at the Beijing Modern Dance Company was a very big deal.  But to many of the staff, I was just someone coming in for a few months and going away again.  It took a long while to build trust and get them to share ideas, even to share documents that weren’t in Chinese!’

At one point during the placement things reached a crisis point for Harpreet.  She called her mentor, Zhang Changcheng, the company’s director.  He came over straight away and gave her some helpful but tough advice. He helped her see things from the Chinese perspective, explaining that she wasn’t communicating well.

He told me that I was being too British and too nice. I was angry at first but later I realised that I probably am too nice in the way I come across. Of course you should be polite but you also need to be very clear and show you know what you want and what you expect. This also made me reflect on my career so far. I had started by being very determined and focussed, but I had become a bit lost and confused.  The placement helped me regain my clarity and focus. 

I came out of it stronger and more confident and with new skills. It was a great introduction to international working.  I have more understanding of international touring and festivals and my association with one of China’s leading arts organisations has raised my profile and will stand me in good stead in brokering new international partnerships. Beijing Modern Dance Company is keen to continue the relationship with me.

Harpreet says that she learned not only more about herself but also about another culture, another perspective, and about arts management practice that was very different to the one she knew in the West. 

I saw with my own eyes how art comes to life without any government funds and support, and how passion, commitment, hard work and good leadership create change and shifts in society, government and politics. I have started to free myself of self-doubt and have built my confidence and outlook on my life and work, understanding my needs and leadership style.
Towards the end of her placement, a friend gave Harpreet a notebook and said she should write down her thoughts and aspirations.  She wrote, ‘I am going to travel the world for a year and I am going to live and work in Melbourne’.  And that’s what she did.

Taking the time to travel wasn’t a decision she took lightly.  She describes the pressure to ‘do the next thing’, the MA in Arts Management, the big job.  But that’s not what she wanted.   This was the moment to develop her own ideas and creativity. Her priority was to focus on intercultural work and she saw that she could connect that with her own cultural journey and go to India for the first time.  She is clear that the Cultural Leadership Programme placement was the springboard that enabled her to take that step.

Harpreet began her sabbatical year in South America looking at how different cultures had survived and changed through patterns of migration.  She then spent four months in India, going to the Punjab where her parents were born and grew up before moving on to Australia.  She had visited Melbourne in 2003 and found it an inspiring and creative city.  Since arriving back there in August 2010, she has used her new skills to make things happen for her.  She is a programme officer at Regional Arts Victoria, working on their regional and national touring programme, Arts Across Victoria.  She volunteers with Kultour a multicultural touring agency.  She is also associated with Asia Link at Melbourne University on a programme that sends 40 arts managers to Asia on placements exploring a South Asian Arts festival in 2012, as well as building relationships with arts organisations, festivals and multicultural artists. She is looking forward to using her language skills at WOMADelaide this year as an interpreter for Indian artists at the international music and dance festival, and supporting the professional development of Monica Singh, an Odissi dancer from India who recently arrived in Delhi.    

Looking back over at her own international placement she says,

When I got on that plane to Beijing in 2008 I didn’t know that I would spending most of the next two years travelling and working internationally. The downside of leadership programmes is that they create an expectation; people want speedy outcomes and instant results.  But everyone’s journey is different.  I know that my investment in myself will pay back when the time is right.

The Cultural Leadership Programme placement gave me the opportunity to realise that it was OK professionally to build my own skills and my own leadership trajectory. It enabled me to get off the dance floor and see the view from the balcony.

I’m a lot more confident now. Here in Australia, I feel things coming together.  I’m developing a five-year strategy. When I was first in Melbourne in 2003 there were hardly any Indians living in the city.  Now there are many.  This is like my Dad’s experience of coming to Britain from the Punjab a generation ago.  I’m really interested in the second-generation experience.  How do we look at what is happening here now in terms of identity and migration?  I want to deliver some innovative international projects that explore this, and more, in a lively and surprising way.  I think I could really be a key player here – or indeed anywhere in the world - championing diversity and change. 

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