Courtney Johnston

Nina and Matariki have both long-admired the work of the Dowse Art Museum Director, Courtney Johnston. In a world where interaction between governance level and lower level staff members is atypical, Courtney is an anomaly in that she is a great sounding board and supporter. At the Dowse, the power of objects and space in building relationships with communities is something that Courtney and her team have worked long and hard towards, and it is a testament to this work that the Dowse is firmly embedded into the lives of schoolchildren in the area.

With her entry for tuakana, Courtney has reminded us of the power of words, as she speaks freely about how her personal experiences have shaped her life and career. It is not easy to talk about loss so openly so, Courtney, thank you. Ngā mihi aroha ki a koe.

In five words, describe your role in the sector.

Breaking the rules up front, but frankly: I'm making this up as I go along, and understanding and acting on what I think my role in the sector could be is something I work on every day.

(So, in five words: 'evolving'.)

What is it about the sector that you love?

In an immediate sense, after years working on the web, I'm still not over the thrill of being able to walk around every day inside an experience that I help make for people. I love watching visitors have a good time, and I'm grateful that I have the immediate ability to intercede and try to fix it when they're not. 

On the next level, I also get a lot of satisfaction from the role we play at The Dowse in supporting artists to develop their work and their careers. This is an art gallery's unique role in society - the thing that differentiates us from every other public institution - and I'm really motivated by that.

In the widest sense, I love being part of a talented and committed community of professionals who care deeply about connecting people with ideas and objects that may bring meaning to their lives.

What have been some challenges in your career?

Because this feels like a safe space, I'm going to be really honest here.

I was married to someone who suffered deeply from depression. Throughout our relationship I made career decisions that were strongly influenced by providing support to him - about how I could commit my time, how much I travelled, and what kinds of jobs I took (I wanted to be a curator when I left school, but I ended up choosing to work outside the gallery sector, because he worked inside it, and one of us needed to be the generalist to ensure we had an income).

At Easter in 2012 my husband killed himself. That came after about 18 months of attempts, and so while it was not a surprise for me (though it was for everyone else), it was still extraordinarily traumatic. I was really lucky in my experience here. Where grief can shut you down, my experience was that it opened me up. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I probably went into a mildly manic state for at least a year, but I couldn't see that at the time (and I don't think anyone was brave enough to say 'Hey, Courtney ... you're going a bit crazy here. Do you need a bit of help?').

So, I had this period of slightly-hallucinogenic energy, creativity, and adventurousness. At the time I was working in a job I loved, as general manager at a Wellington web company. The directorship at The Dowse came up about six months after my husband died, and I decided to go for it - even though I felt (and was, on paper) horrendously under-qualified for the role.

And to my immense surprise - and that of quite a few other people, I imagine - I got the job. And I'm so grateful. I've been able to channel a lot of that manic excitement and inspiration into the the opportunity. Three years later I've calmed and slowed down significantly, but I feel extremely fortunate, still, that out of something awful something wonderful was able to emerge.

What challenges can you see moving forward?

For me, personally, I have recently started thinking about how I stay motivated and fresh in my career and in this sector. I'm 36, and looking at how the demographics stack up in Aotearoa New Zealand and the future of retirement, I reckon I'm going to be working until I'm at least 75.

So, how do I maintain motivation and relevance for 40 years? The good thing about this challenge is that it's applicable every day, as well as in the terrifying long-term.

What do you think people in the early stages of their careers can offer the sector?

I'm really aware right now that I'm no longer "young" - age-wise, or career-wise. It's quite confronting, moving from the 25-34 checkbox in surveys to the 35-god-you're-old-and-irrelevant-who-cares-about-your-actual-age-matter-anyway? checkbox.

What I've noticed as I settle well into my 30s is that I don't have the same intellectual and energetic spark that I had when I was in my 20s. I'm more strategic, efficient and thoughtful, but boy - I look back at what I wrote and made and did in my 20s and I'm astounded: it's like looking at a different person.

If you're just coming out of university, or just getting into the sector, then I say: burn that energy. Work and think hard, pitch projects outside the remit of whatever job you feel you've been hired to do, put your hand up for every project going. Take every opportunity to add your energy and ideas to the work of senior colleagues - or just as importantly, people outside the sector.

What is your spirit animal?

I'm so glad you asked! This is a topic of some debate at The Dowse. My comms manager insists that I need something with a more impressive brand (like a lion) but at heart I'm totally an otter.