Katrina Sedgwick brings a rich background in performance and civic life to her new job as chief executive of the Melbourne Arts Precinct. By Romy Ash.

Melbourne Arts Precinct head Katrina Sedgwick

Katrina Sedgwick, the new chief executive of the Melbourne Arts Precinct.
Katrina Sedgwick, the new chief executive of the Melbourne Arts Precinct.
Credit: Phoebe Powell

In the depths of Melbourne lockdown last year, Katrina Sedgwick walked and walked and walked. She became obsessed with gardens and street planting, obsessed with the minutiae of her neighbourhood. She was thinking a lot about birds and bees, how to draw them nearer. She replanted her backyard with bird- and bee-friendly plants.

She was sick of the sight of their local park. It hadn’t been maintained for the longest time. Along with two other women, her neighbours, they started guerilla gardening, planting natives for the bees, for the birds, for themselves. She planted the tiny bit of verge on the street outside her house and then the verge on the opposite side. In her local park, the council loved the guerilla planting. They renovated the park, extending the planting right along its length.

Sedgwick has been thinking a lot about interventions into civic space. She has been chief executive of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) for the past seven years. Under Sedgwick’s care, the $40 million revitalisation involved a repositioning of ACMI’s architectural face, an opening out and bringing in, the redesign inviting the public to play a bigger part in the life of the museum. The new design sees a mingling of cafe space with public, communal workspaces. She brought the museum’s collection out of the literal basement and into a glassed area where the public can watch as workers restore and catalogue objects. There’s excellent free wi-fi, places for people to lounge and drink coffee. The space invites people to stay.

Now she has a new job, as chief executive of Melbourne Arts Precinct (MAP Co), the $1.7 billion reimagining of the arts precinct in the Melbourne CBD. “It’s a once-in-a-generation investment,” says Sedgwick.

This reimagining involves a lot of new green space, a ribbony lick of green that will surround and connect parts of the precinct that are currently isolated from one another. The new NGV Contemporary will be capped with 18,000 square metres of rooftop garden that she describes as “beautiful, splendid, spectacular”. It will be a place for “beautiful wanderings”, Sedgwick says. She’s excited about the gardening this job involves and I laugh, thinking about a chief executive with their hands in the dirt. But it makes sense. To plant a tree involves forward thinking, an imagining of that future shade, that future canopy, that moment when a chattering of rainbow lorikeets might take to the sky.

Sedgwick is in isolation, missing her final week of work at ACMI and her farewell party. She’s speaking from her home office, her spare room. The arm of a guitar intrudes in the background, there’s art on the walls and things piled up precariously, in the way of spare rooms. On her screen, she’s hidden herself from herself. After the past two years, she’s sick of watching her own mouth move. She’s skilful at using the technology to make talking more like a conversation. She tells me about her life – growing up in Adelaide, clowning, being on soaps, street theatre, commissioning films and producing festivals.

Sedgwick’s mother, Pauline, is a ceramicist. As kids, Sedgwick and her three siblings hung around a lot at the then Contemporary Art Society of South Australia, where their mother exhibited. Pauline was a single parent, raising four kids, and did pottery at home. Her friends pitched in and bought her a kiln. Their kitchen table was always covered in clay. A messy house.

“We used to just make stuff with her, make these rather knobby-looking cups and sculptures,” says Sedgwick. Her mum valued an artistic education. “I don’t know how she did it – I mean, we were not well-off – but she would save money and buy tickets so we could go and see special things. When Nureyev and Fonteyn danced in Adelaide, we got to see them perform. My sister and I went off on the bus. She could only afford two tickets.”

This was Don Dunstan’s Adelaide in the 1970s. The Dunstan era “totally shaped me,” says Sedgwick. “He came in and set up the first international arts festival, the first film co-operation, he built the Festival Centre. He funded the Adelaide Festival – sorry I should say he funded seriously the Adelaide Festival – it had already been set up by the community in the ’60s. He had a big focus on wine and restaurants and all the kind of conviviality that you need, and took the city into a place that was incredibly vibrant and where exciting things would happen.

“I grew up in that kind of context. When I went to high school, they’d just established four specialist music schools that also had strong drama programs, so I went to one of those. Remarkable programs. I had 10 music lessons a week. My main instrument was singing. They established the State Youth Opera Company. So, alongside the opera company, there was a youth opera company, and I was singing opera from age 11.”

Sedgwick acted in The Last Wave, the 1977 Peter Weir film, when she was nine. She worked for six weeks with David Gulpilil. “Just extraordinary experiences,” she says. As a child she performed in a Helmut Bakaitis production, The Two Fiddlers, for the Adelaide Festival. She was a troll in a troll costume who sang with a very lovely, sweet voice. She sang four lines in the opera Queen of Hearts for the then Australian Opera, in the kids’ chorus in the Festival Theatre. “Just thrilling.”

She wasn’t a child star, though. “No, no, I definitely was not a child star at all, but I certainly was a child actor.” Her whole performance career – even at nine years old with her shining face – she was a jobbing actor.

She didn’t go to Adelaide University to do her bachelor of arts. Straight out of school, she performed in a clowning troupe as Pico the Clown. It was led by Humbolt the Clown, who was very famous in Adelaide; he and Fat Cat were regulars on television. “He used to wear a red nose, but the rest of us didn’t,” she says. “It was just a rambunctious troupe, and we would do comedy routines and roam around performing, and then we would do theatre productions and school shows. It was a troupe that made a living being resourceful and he had a big van, so we’d drive around regional South Australia performing.” With her naturally big feet, she didn’t need to wear fake shoes. She wore a tutu, a purple silk jockey top that hung in a way that made her look round at the tummy, while the rest of her was skinny and small.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s she joined a theatre company called Etcetera, an independent grassroots group that was radical for its time, creating cross-disciplinary work involving a lot of video. Then there was her time as a blue and yellow concertina, voicing McDuff in the children’s television show Johnson and Friends. And her soap opera era: big hair, big earrings, red lipstick. She acted in E Street, A Country Practice, Rafferty’s Rules. “A hothouse of production,” she says. “Great training ground.”

At 26 she gave up acting. Sedgwick has a familial tremor, a permanent shaking in her hands, that worsened in her mid-20s. It was tricky to go to an audition with a tremor. She went to Europe and had a wonderful adventure, and when she returned her agent said, “It’s the weirdest thing, you’re now being offered only mother roles.”

“I wasn’t a star as a child, I wasn’t a star then either,” says Sedgwick. “I was fine. I was pretty good. I made a living, and that’s really hard for any actor – but it was pretty clear I was not going to be the next Toni Collette. I was going to be a jobbing, bit-part performer. When my agent said that to me [about the change in roles being offered], a penny dropped. I just thought, if that’s being said to me now, at 26?

“We all know how difficult it is for women to have a career, particularly as they start to mature, and I just thought, I know I’m not going to be one of the lucky ones. I’m going to be unemployed in my late 30s. Why am I here? It was pretty devastating, because all my life I had been a performer. It was what I loved doing and I really spent about two years grieving.”

For a while she earned her living folding T-shirts. As volunteers, she and three other women delivered Sydney’s first Fringe Festival. Her big break came with Barrie Kosky’s 1996 Adelaide Festival, when she produced the late-night club Red Square. She then spent 15 years in Adelaide producing festivals. She was inaugural director of the Adelaide Film Festival, and commissioned exceptional Australian films: Ten Canoes, Samson and Delilah, Look Both Ways.

In 2012 she was appointed head of arts for the ABC. This was the start of the boardroom, the head-of-the-table jobs, the everyone-listens-to-me jobs. There’s performance in it: standing at the front of a room and commanding attention.

We start speaking about our lockdown walks, which went beyond the minutiae of the suburbs: about how much time we spent along the creeks and rivers that curl through the city of Melbourne. The creeks rimmed by all those beautiful eucalypts, their leaves shivering in the sunlight, the trunks changing colour as the bark sheds, going bright pink or livid green and mellowing to a soft salmon grey.

I live near the confluence of Edgars Creek and Merri Creek in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, while Sedgwick is closer to the confluence of Merri Creek and the Birrarung (Yarra River). The Birrarung splits the arts precinct in two. Sedgwick talks about the “artificial divide” north and south of the river – a divide that MAP seeks to bridge. The river doesn’t need to divide, she says. In fact, it could connect these two halves of the city.

“I mean, one of the most beautiful things... I love standing on Princes Bridge and looking down towards Docklands and watching all the pedestrians going back and forth across all of the bridges,” she says. “You know – that sense of connection and purpose. How do you have Princes Bridge be this vibrant avenue for pedestrians back and forth and back and forth, in a way that has holistic intent, underpinned by creative connectivity?”

I tell Sedgwick about how emotional I was last year, during the cancelled Rising festival where a commission from acclaimed Yorta Yorta/Yuin composer and soprano Deborah Cheetham, “The Rivers Sing”, was still allowed to play at sunrise and sunset, right there by the Princes Bridge. I tell her how I cried walking through the empty city to the banks of the Birrarung, hearing the river sing. How it felt like a call to prayer, a call to connection, a call to honour the river. It reminded me that art can be felt in the body and the heart, that it’s transformative. It reminded me how important it is, for the life of a city.

“Yes,” says Sedgwick, with so much excitement in her face. “Yes.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Planting a vision".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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