Farewell, Sue Paterson
Guy Somerset · 30 January 2017
An interview with the New Zealand Festival's Executive Director as she steps down after eight years.
After eight years – overseeing four New Zealand Festivals, five Wellington Jazz Festivals, four Lexus Song Quests and a Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo – Sue Paterson could be forgiven for being all festival-ed out when she steps down as Executive Director of the New Zealand Festival on Friday 10 February.
But not a bit of it – Sue is already planning the many New Zealand and Australian festivals (with a small f) she will be attending in 2017 as a ‘civilian’.
She will continue to be a patron of the New Zealand Festival (with a big F) and a supporter of their loyalty programme The Culture Club – “and I’ll probably be extremely vocal knowing me, driving everyone mad sending them emails”.
But with the pièce de résistance of last year’s phenomenally successful Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo under her belt, she thinks it’s the right time to leave.
“Yes! Yes!” she answers enthusiastically when asked if it’s important for the head of an organisation to know when to go.
“I think in any organisation it’s good to have refreshed leadership. And eight years seems to be my thing. It was eight years at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, eight years at Limbs Dance Company and now eight years here.”
During those eight years, Sue has worked with two Artistic Directors, Lissa Twomey (2008–2012) and Shelagh Magadza (2012–present), who she praises for their “great vision and extraordinary programming”.
Of Shelagh, she says: “I have especially admired her commitment to the environment with Power Plant (2014) and For the Birds (2016) and the community engagement projects of The Big Bang (2014) and Le Grand Continental (2016).”
Community engagement at Le Grand Continental in the 2016 New Zealand Festival. Image: Ireen Demut
Sue also says it was “an honour and a privilege to work with two strong women Executive Chairs, Fran Wilde and Kerry Prendergast”, who she describes as “great, fearless leaders”.
She is “excited” and “thrilled” to be handing her position on to her successor, Meg Williams, previously the Festival’s Head of Marketing and Development.
“I think Meg will bring fresh energy and new ideas and she’ll be great. She’s a passionate festivals person. She loves festivals and absolutely gets what they’re about.”
Nurturing newcomers has been an important philosophy for Sue throughout her career in the arts, which has included being General Manager of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (1999–2006), Marketing Director in a previous stint at the New Zealand Festival (1995–1998), Dance Programme Manager for the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand (1990–1994) and General Manager of Limbs (1979–1986).
“When I was a young arts manager in Auckland running Limbs, it is true most of the organisations were run by men, but they were all amazingly supportive and helpful to me. Beyond helpful.”
She’d had a similar experience when she was an Arts Administrator at the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust for five years in the mid-1970s.
“I was the youngest employee and I worked with these extremely experienced arts managers. They were incredible – touring big international productions and they’d had amazing careers. I was young and keen and they just taught me everything they knew about putting on shows. Honestly, it was great. I was so well mentored by all those old blokes. And they were old.
“I always remembered that – how wonderful it was to learn from them. And also they used to let me just get on with stuff. Just oversee me. I never forgot that. When I’ve been in leadership roles – Limbs, the Ballet and here – I’ve always been interested in developing younger talent.”
Sue, second left, with Limbs Dance Company.
Sue’s first encounter with the New Zealand Festival was with its very first Festival in 1986, her last year as General Manager of Limbs, who she negotiated to be part of the Festival with a retrospective show called Melting Moments.
“I actually moved down here to Wellington in 1988 just before the second Festival,” she says. “Part of the reason for moving was because of the Festival. I thought it was so extraordinary. I thought it had transformed Wellington even after just one Festival.”
Sue covered the 1988 Festival as dance reviewer for the New Zealand Herald.
“Then in 1990 I was at the Arts Council and we worked closely with the Festival to set up funding for New Zealand works. We actually approached them. We thought it was such a great festival and a great platform for New Zealand work.”
After leaving the Arts Council, Sue joined the Festival as Marketing Director under Artistic Director Joseph Seelig and Executive Director Carla van Zon.
“That was a very exciting time,” she says. “The Festival has been blessed with great Artistic Directors. Joseph was an amazing Artistic Director and it was a wonderful gang to work with.”
Her next engagement with the Festival was when she was at the Royal New Zealand Ballet arranging co-productions.
Sue with Kerry Prendergast, centre, and Shelagh Magadza.
Dance has been a constant throughout Sue’s life.
Her first memory of attending an arts event is growing up on Auckland’s North Shore and going with her mother to see Rowena Jackson and the Royal Ballet at the city’s His Majesty’s Theatre.
“That was transforming,” she says. “I still have that vivid memory of being a four-year-old up in the gods looking down on stage. My mother used to take me to all the Royal New Zealand Ballet productions. It was an early company then. In fact, I was born the week the company started. They started on 30 June 1953 and I was born on 23 June.”
Ballet lessons through childhood were followed by “some very early contemporary dance classes” in Auckland during her short career as a journalist in the early 1970s (having trained under Michael King and Christine Cole Catley at Wellington Polytechnic).
She studied at the London Contemporary Dance School while working in the city for Macmillan Publishers and studied and performed contemporary dance “and strangely enough Indian classical dance” in Sydney when she was at the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.
“Every night I was going to dance classes and at weekends I was performing. It was a huge focus.”
In 1979, Sue returned to New Zealand. But that hadn’t been the plan.
“I was on my way to New York because it was the home of contemporary dance at that time. I’d been involved in presenting the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1977 at the Sydney Opera House. We had John Cage on stage. It was a fantastic performance. The audience was two rows. Two rows! It was such a turning point for me. I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is embarrassing.’ So I made that steer – ‘Right, I need to go to New York.’
“That was my plan. I came back here on holiday, met Limbs Dance Company, which had been together for a year, and was blown away by how good they were, got to know them and did some classes and performances with them. Co-founder Mary Jane O’Reilly and I hit it off immediately and she asked me if I would consider being General Manager and I said yes. Then it was eight years. I hardly danced after that. I never had time. Too busy.”
She did, however, get to go to New York with Limbs, who performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1981, receiving a standing ovation and great reviews.
Sue with New Zealand Festival Executive Coordinator Suzy Cain at the 1980s-themed launch of the 2016 Festival programme.
Dancing’s loss was arts management’s gain – something recognised in 2004 when Sue was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to the arts, in 2015 when she was a finalist in the New Zealand Women of Influence Awards and currently with her being one of the three finalists in the Metlife Senior New Zealander of the Year Award as part of the 2017 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards – the winners of which will be announced at a gala event in Auckland on Wednesday 22 February.
The New Zealand Festival is also having a party, to wish Sue farewell and celebrate her years with it.
She in turn celebrates the Festival, saying: “I’m really proud of the calibre of the staff we have working here. I think they’re exceptional.”
Which isn’t to say there won’t be an email or two ...
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