Portrait

Inside ACMI X with creative director Katrina Sedgwick By Abigail Ulman.

Katrina Sedgwick and ACMI X

The space has the feel of a headquarters for a Silicon Valley tech company. It’s airy, positive, inviting, purposeful – but with no ping-pong table and a lot more women.

Katrina Sedgwick is showing me around. A year ago she became the director and chief executive of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Two weeks ago, she moved the organisation’s staff into this building, called ACMI X, a co-working space in Melbourne’s Southbank. Five minutes ago, she agreed to take part in a regular lunchtime dance class with her centre’s new neighbour, The Australian Ballet.

In other words, Sedgwick welcomes change and challenge and is very comfortable when in process. Which is handy, because the office is still being built around her and the 80 other staff members who have relocated from their old home above the museum space in Federation Square.

So far, ACMI X houses a big stainless-steel kitchen, where a few excited staff members are getting a milk-stretching lesson in front of a new espresso machine. There’s a casual eating area that will also be used for industry events, during which the windows will be shaded by a long curtain that – fittingly for a screen arts organisation – will be made of blue velvet.

ACMI and its design partner, Six Degrees, have mapped out comfortable corners for informal meetings and a so-far bookless library with nooks to sit in and read. There is office space for confirmed tenants, including the National Film and Sound Archive, and 60 empty desks ready for app creators, theatre companies, film producers, and other creative industry professionals. The goal is to create a dynamic environment that will foster interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration.

Sedgwick’s own office is also in flux. The desk is there. The bookshelves have yet to arrive. A whiteboard runs the length of a wall but new ideas have yet to be scribble-squeaked across its surface. Sedgwick points to another wall. “I’m getting a window put in,” she tells me. “I need a window.”

Twenty years ago, the writer David Foster Wallace anticipated the current digital explosion-of-information age and stressed that it would one day be crucial to have paid curators who could tell us what content to engage with, and what to disregard. Wallace called these hypothetical sifters and selectors “gatekeepers”. In her curatorial role at ACMI, Sedgwick refers to herself as a “creative producer”. She says she helps create a “journey through a series of ideas”.

“It’s about enabling people to deliver their ideas to the best capacity that they can, and to think about ways, in a holistic sense, in an institutional sense, that the audience can best experience that creativity.”

Sedgwick spends a lot of time thinking about that audience – the 1.2 million people who visit ACMI every year. While the role of curator, even in Wallace’s imagining, can, and in some senses must, lend itself to blind spots and exclusivity, Sedgwick is a remarkably democratic and open-minded person.

She agrees with her film and TV counterparts across the Pacific, who are calling for greater ethnic, cultural and gender diversity on-screen and behind the camera, and she is downright millennial in her enthusiasm for new screen technologies – games, apps, virtual reality – and their “radical reimagining of narrative”. She is also the only parent I have ever heard describe the video games her two kids play as “unbelievable and incredible” rather than just a way to make them sit still in a moving vehicle.

This particular enthusiasm can perhaps be traced to Sedgwick’s own childhood, when she had a Commodore 64, on which she was limited to playing a very boring Hobbit game. She grew up in Adelaide and benefited enormously from the cultural policies of then South Australian premier Don Dunstan. She was a member of a children’s opera company and, at age nine, she had a role in Peter Weir’s film The Last Wave. Her earnest presence on-screen already hints at the poise and sincerity of her adult self.

After secondary school, she spent nine years performing with an independent theatre company called Etcetera, while also pursuing a serious, solo acting career – a trajectory that was abruptly thwarted the day her agent contacted her to say, “I really hate to tell you this but, in terms of the casting calls you’re being brought in for, you’ve gone from being the young woman to being the mother”. Sedgwick was 26 years old.

From her years with Etcetera, she had come to recognise the necessity of playfulness, open-mindedness, collaboration and respect for audiences. Once she recovered from the painful end to her acting career, she realised these skills would transfer effectively to the production side of arts festivals. And so began a career that has included co-founding the Sydney Fringe Festival, producing the Adelaide Festival of Arts, and directorial roles at the Adelaide Film Festival and ABC TV.

And now the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, where Sedgwick is busy setting up and settling into her new office. Soon there will be shelves, and books to fill them. Ideas to cover a whole wall’s worth of whiteboard. And beside her desk, a new window will be installed: a backlit rectangle to peer through and better see the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Moving images". Subscribe here.

Abigail Ulman
is the author of Hot Little Hands.

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