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How I Got Here: MPavilion’s Creative Director on following your curiosities and playing to your strengths

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARIE-LUISE SKIBBE

WORDS BY IZZY WIGHT

“It’s really easy to think that you don’t know enough, or you’re not smart enough, but ultimately I think it’s about following your curiosities and acting on your enthusiasm.”

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While the internet and social media might have us believe that our ideal job is a mere pipe dream, the individuals who have these jobs were, believe it or not, in the same position once, fantasising over someone else’s seemingly unattainable job.

But behind the awe-inspiring titles and the fancy work events lies a heck of a lot of hard work. So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?


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Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to people who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.

Jen Zielinska’s interests in public art, architecture and community engagement has taken her to some pretty incredible places. After graduating with a Bachelor of Curation, Communication and Criticism from Central Saint Martins in London, Jen flew to New York for an internship with MoMA. Splitting her time between bartending at the local pub and coordinating a dynamic art program for young people, Jen learnt how to find “a balance between being ambitious and being honest about your capacity”.

After two years working as a Friday Late curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Jen booked a one-way ticket to Melbourne. Slowly building her social and professional local network, Jen landed a job working as the Creative Director at the Naomi Milgrom Foundation’s ongoing architecture commission, MPavilion. Jen is hard-working, humble and really great at packing a van. Here’s what he’s learnt along the way.

What do you do and what’s your official job title?

My role is Creative Director for MPavilion, which essentially means I get to come up with the ideas for events and collaborations that will form the program. The job encompasses everything from writing the monthly themes to commissioning the fashion designer for the MPavilion uniform.

Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship entry-level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story.

I did a combination of both actually! I got accepted to study on a Foundation Course at Central Saint Martins. Hilariously, I had grand ambitions to be a textile artist but ended up doing a Bachelors in ‘Curation, Communication and Criticism’ – and never looked back. Whilst I was studying, I started out doing the odd ‘event assistant’ job at the Royal Academy of Arts, working with the Education and Events team in London. My responsibilities grew from there.

In 2011, I went to intern at MoMA in New York and coordinated a program called PopRally. It was an unpaid internship so I had to work an obscene about of hours in my local pub prior to leaving and ended up sharing a room with a friend for three months to afford the rent. Luckily, when I returned to London the RA offered me the opportunity to curate and produce their first (and my first) Friday Late as part of a Ron Arad exhibition.

Coinciding with this, I was doing lots of part-time and freelance work, working on projects at TATE and with the Louis Vuitton Young Arts Project. When I was 24, I got a gig at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) as the Friday Late curator in the Design and Architecture team, which is definitely where it felt like the ‘penny dropped’ in terms of the types of events and areas I wanted to work in.

After two years, I booked a one-way flight to Melbourne (having never been before but in need of a change) and through contacts in London, I was introduced to a number of people in Melbourne who have since become good friends and the best support network, including the team at MPavilion. I worked as the program producer for a season, which I loved and then did a stint of work with a PR company, NGV and Melbourne Fashion Festival. I’ve been CD at MPavilion since 2018.

What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? Can you tell us about one in particular?

I used to curate the Friday Late program at the V&A Museum in London, which was a monthly event held across the museum. It was sometimes attended by 6000 people. It was totally bonkers and brilliant but I did it for two years and definitely burnt out.

I think there’s a real need for finding a balance between being ambitious and being honest about your capacity. Of course, it’s also up to the organisation to see it, but I think when you’re younger it’s easy to keep wanting to prove yourself – sometimes to your own detriment.

What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?

We have a tiny team, which I love because it makes us super agile, it also means I get to wear many hats from grant writing to budgets, from collaborator meetings to bump-in logistics – my van packing skills are a sight to behold. As much as MPavilion is a significant architectural structure, the program and space are conceptualised to have the capacity to morph into different roles and different purposes.

Each year we really take a lot of time to consider who we collaborate with and how the MPavilion could be used that season. It’s also a not for profit which, not many people realise. It means there’s a lot of work that goes into fundraising and development – which is no small task!

What’s the best part about your role?

Once the architect has been selected and we get to see the first concept for MPavilion, we have some very early initial meetings when we hear about their ideas for the design of the pavilion. And that’s the point when the event ideas and program themes start bubbling up – it’s the best brief to get to respond to!

I spend eight months of the year with my head down, writing and planning the program and then 4 months of the year seeing it all come to life in the gardens – it’s a dreamy place to spend the summer.

What would surprise people about your role?

My role isn’t just at MPavilion… MPavilion is part of a wider organisation called the Naomi Milgrom Foundation. Naomi Milgrom AC is an incredible arts philanthropist and the Founder of MPavilion in 2014 (and ongoing supporter).

As part of the work the foundation does, we program events such as Living Cities Forum (an annual forum that explores the role of design, planning and architecture and the cities we live in) and programming initiatives in regional Victoria with Benalla Art Gallery on a series called ‘Amplify’.

 

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A post shared by Jen Zielinska (@jenzielinska)


What skills have served you well in your industry?

Being open to people and ideas. You never know who you might meet, where an idea might go or what a conversation may amount to. We hosted a pop-up hair salon at MPavilion last year, which came about through a series of (at the time) seemingly inconsequential chats about hair during lockdown.

It amounted to a four-day program with a functioning hair salon and talk series on identities, genders, images, perceptions and rituals – it was very fun. Also a very boring one – I know – but learning how to use Excel properly. I had a summer job working in credit control when I was 18 and I will forever be eternally grateful for knowing how to use formulas in spreadsheets correctly – they’re essential in event planning.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day?

I realise internships can be very a privileged thing to do (particularly the unpaid ones) but if you have the capacity, then do as many as you can! Even if it’s a day or a couple of weeks, they really helped me get a sense of things I did or didn’t want to do and the type of place I actually wanted to work.

I remember interning at a tiny commercial gallery in East London when I was at uni and very quickly realised it wasn’t for me. I need to work in a busy office with lots of people around me, it’s where I get my energy from. And don’t doubt yourself! I’ve always had huge imposter syndrome (I still do, writing this).

It’s really easy to think that you don’t know enough, or you’re not smart enough, but ultimately I think it’s about following your curiosities and acting on your enthusiasm. If you’re interested in an organisation, role or industry – send them an email, attend related events and ask questions. Play to your unique strengths because everyone has them!

What about a practical tip?

When running events, always have a printed run sheet that lists the contact details of every single person involved – no matter how big or small the event. I’m a woman possessed when it comes to them, they’re the best weapon you’ve got to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible!

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