Creativity Amongst Crisis: Leonie Thompson

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Back in July I put out a call to my immediate musical network, to ask who would be happy to be interviewed on how they have adapted during Melbourne’s lockdown. The last seven months have been disorientating and frequently exhausting. Prioritising your mental and physical wellbeing is more important than ever.

This prompted me to start an ongoing series called Creativity Amongst Crisis. Today’s subject is arts administrator Leonie Thompson, who I met when I started working at Melbourne Recital Centre early this year. Leonie is Philanthropy & Bequest Coordinator within the Development department at the Centre, and gets to witness firsthand the incredible programs which spring out of the generosity of private donors.

Leonie has a Masters of Music (Performance) in classical piano from Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. During her university days she established an ongoing concert series at St George’s Anglican Church in Travancore- you can find more information through the website and Facebook page. I was particularly interested in asking Leonie how she found herself in an arts administration career.

While Leonie and I are both employed at MRC, we both volunteered our time for this interview.


Can you give us an insight into your musical background?

Growing up in Wauchope, a small regional town in NSW, I wasn’t exactly surrounded by music. However, my mother happened to be one of the few music teachers in the area. She not only taught me piano, but encouraged me to see the value in music education and the doors it can open in life.

I was fortunate to gain scholarship support to move to Melbourne and study piano performance, under the wise guidance of Anna Goldsworthy, Ronald Farren-Price and Sonya Lifschitz. I met a circle of incredibly bright and beautiful people who are still close friends today, not least of which my husband Nick Slaney.

Leonie (right) pictured with Ronald Farren-Price (left).

During these years I formed an ensemble with violinist Nathan Juriansz and clarinetist Aaron Klein, and commissioned and performed new works around Melbourne. I also had the thrill of performing the Grieg concerto with the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra. But the most memorable experience was performing my two Masters recitals – truly a marathon – and something which gave me a newfound appreciation for the career musician and the investment before each concert that we as audiences sit down to enjoy.

How did you find yourself in the arts administration role you are in today?

I’ve always been business-minded and interested in the swirl of activity behind the scenes to get things done. So I suppose alongside my journey as a musician I was also drawn to leading and organising things, and gained a lot of voluntary experience along the way.

During my years at the Con, I ran a piano studio of private students and would organise student concerts at the end of each term. I was frustrated with the lack of affordable performance spaces with good instruments in my area and started a concert series to fundraise for a new grand piano and eventually set up Concerts at St. George’s (now the Friends of Music Series). When I moved to Germany the following year, I used the opportunity to explore this interest in development a bit more and landed a job in business development.

Eventually, these varied experiences and interests actually came together nicely in beginning work at Melbourne Recital Centre.

Performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Maroondah Symphony Orchestra.

Any pieces of advice in terms of gaining experience, for those who would like to enter the arts admin field?

Take a moment to look back over everything you’ve done and note the demonstrable skills and strengths that would translate to arts administration. Too often we overlook these and assume we need other skills, when really we’re already more than capable. For example, I was teaching piano, but this also involved invoicing, receipting, scheduling, record keeping, marketing, liaising with clients, etc.

From there, you can gain experience in weaker areas by volunteering with community groups or at university, or undertaking an internship with a local ensemble or organisation. Or even start your own projects or programs where there’s a need, which would give you further opportunities to refine your skills or plug any skills gaps.

Other than that, I think it’s great to be confident to ask questions and talk about your goals. People care and are willing to help you.

What is your favourite aspect of working in the area of philanthropy and arts funding?

Helping to make good things happen! I get to witness the impact and outcome of a community’s generosity first hand, which is very rewarding. I’m working so closely to the joy of music.

Performing her Masters recital in Melba Hall, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

The people I get to meet are wonderful – the Melbourne Recital Centre donor community feels like a big extended music-loving family. I enjoy calling to say thank you for their gifts, learning their stories and facilitating a meaningful relationship between them and the programs they support.

It’s a creative industry, you’re working with creative people on all fronts, and this flexibility and fresh thinking is really energising to be around.

Have you learnt anything specific that you may not have been forced to learn, were it not for COVID-19 restrictions and the flow-on effects?

I learnt that Zoom backgrounds can be videos, and that you can in fact get motion sickness from watching someone ‘ride a rollercoaster’ backwards during a meeting…

I’ve had time (haven’t we all?) to reflect more on the arts industry too, and my role within it, whether that’s as a performer, teacher or fundraiser. Being surrounded by creative people is energising, and it nurtures a kind of infectious resilience. I think this will be vital as we move out of COVID-19 lockdowns and navigate the coming year, healing the wounds of 2020 and rebuilding connections across our community.

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