You might be easily deceived into thinking that The Ladies Network is a lucrative creative agency judging by its 50K strong social media following, consistent stream of online content and dedicated fanbase - but the Sydney-based creative platform is still as grassroots as it gets.
Launched in May 2015, the organisation has catapulted into acclaim both locally and overseas in the two years following their initial exhibition in Surry Hills. The platform now boasts a website which is updated with articles, Q&A’s and creative content by contributing artists, an online art store, a Facebook group for sharing ideas and projects, along with a number of exhibitions, events and music nights under their belt.
The collective is run by four Sydney-based women who possess different skills, but share a passion for the creative industries and social change. The team consists of editor-in-chief, Arabella Peterson; curator and partnerships manager, Lara Vrkic; Business manager, Emmeline Peterson and PR manager and music editor, Jessica Mincher.
The ladies behind The Ladies Network met through going to the same gigs and exhibitions, and after becoming friends, realised they shared a disillusion with the narrow scope of work represented in their respective fields. While it has changed significantly since its humble beginnings, the purpose of The Ladies Network remains the same - to create a fun and dynamic creative space for artists.
So tell us about The Ladies Network’s first exhibition and beginnings.
Lara: I have always been surrounded by very creative people. My social life has always revolved around going to exhibitions sometimes on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night at local galleries and many of my friends are artists. I did find however that my female friends were more reluctant to share their work with an audience and I started to become aware that a large amount of the exhibitions I was going to were only promoting work by male artists. The first exhibition was a very small group show featuring 20 emerging artists. Many of the artists were our friends that had expressed that they were too nervous to exhibit their work.
The first exhibition was a huge success, and was shut down by the police because there were so many people who came in support! It was such an exciting and inspiring vibe. From day one, it’s always been about being a fun, supportive and encouraging space where people can have a drink and enjoy some art.
Arabella: We certainly never intended TLN to grow into what it is now – but we are thrilled! We were just a group of friends who wanted to collaborate on a fun creative project, but once we realised we could really turn it into something meaningful, we buckled down and worked really hard. It’s changed a lot since it started out and we’re still learning more and more every day.
What do you all do when you’re not working on The Ladies Network? How do you manage balancing The Ladies Network with your other commitments?
Arabella: Since TLN is a volunteer project with all our earnings from merch and art going back into producing free events and content, we all still work full time jobs. Emmeline works as Operations Coordinator at Well Made Clothes, a local company spearheading responsible, cruelty free, environmentally friendly and sustainable fashion; I work at The Physical Disability Council of NSW and I’m also a freelance writer and social media manager; Lara works in marketing, content and social media roles as well as raising her two-year-old son Hudson; and Jess specialises in media, PR and marketing and is the main lady behind the dreamy band NOIRE.
I think some people would picture us working together full-time in an office, but that’s so far from the reality! Working what feels like a second full-time job can get a tad overwhelming at times, but it’s definitely worth it. I used to work on TLN pretty much from the time I got home from work until bedtime, then on the weekends while also trying to be supportive by attending as many exhibitions and gigs as possible, but I think that was really taking a negative toll on my health. Now I actively make time after work and on the weekends to see my family and friends, relax a little and attend to life-admin. When we find the time, all four of us love to have picnics, go to the markets or have a wine together too.
How have you built up such an international roster of artists?
Lara: Our growth has happened completely organically. Our social media presence makes it easier to get in contact with international artists and I rely on Instagram a lot for finding new creatives to showcase. A lot of the time when I email people to be in our shows, I hesitate for a second before sending, because I think they couldn't possibly want to be in a show curated by some girl from Sydney. I always get butterflies waiting for replies and it’s the biggest joy when they come back saying how excited they are to be asked. It’s really true that you just have to aim high and know that you really have nothing to lose.
Lara: I constantly feel really proud of what we have created. We are always working on The Ladies Network and It’s so lovely watching hard work pay off. We are as old as my son Hudson and I sometimes think he requires less work! I guess what makes me most proud though is when people comment on how fun the exhibitions are. I’ll admit I am someone that feels easily daunted, but I’ve often felt so unwelcome at exhibitions because I don't know the artists or I’m not a part of the scene. It’s nice knowing that people feel comfortable enough to come along and chat to us as well as submit their work to us for consideration. I try really hard to include a mix of emerging and established artists in our shows so this kind of feedback is golden.
What has your proudest moment from your time working with TLN been?
Arabella: We’ve raised money for various organisations at our events, including Hey Sis, The Rough Period and Australian Marriage Equality - it makes me feel proud that we can make a difference in this way, and we’re so privileged to be in the position to do so. It also makes me incredibly happy when writers that have offered to contribute pieces to the website (many who have never written or published work before) tell me that they now have the confidence and experience to write professionally, or have gained jobs in the field. I love how many people reach out to us, but at times it does feel like there is an obligation to assist or promote every person who asks us with their creative pursuit, and to do it in a faultless and timely way. So when we receive a thank you for our time either over email or in person, it just means the absolute world to me and allows me to feel proud of what we’ve created. A few weeks ago, we received an email from a young woman who said TLN had given her the confidence to show her art, encouraged her to support the women around her and move to Sydney to attend art school. Receiving these kinds of messages are by far the best thing about what we do.
What role do you think art and culture has to play in the fight for equality?
Jess: Nina Simone said that an artist’s job is to reflect the times – mediums like painting, music, literature can then be considered a reflection of society’s collective memory. The arts is such a powerful source of information which contributes to influencing social norms – gender stereotypes still dominate mainstream art which shapes ideas about how someone should look, act or treat others. The important thing about art and culture is that it can create new dialogue, generate empathy and facilitate new ideas and understanding of people's lived experiences.
How do you balancing the needs of running a business with the social mission of the Ladies Network?
Emmeline: Basically, our social mission is to support creatives in the industry and to help create an environment where artists are recognised for their work and time. There are specific cases where we have had to look at our values and ethics before embarking on a project, we've turned down a few huge opportunities and collaborations because the companies didn't ethically align with what The Ladies Network is about. We want to do as much as we can for women in the creative industries, but there's also only so much free emotional labour that you can give to a project!
What can cities and countries do better?
Arabella: Every city and country can do better by ensuring that there are opportunities in place for artists. This may be through grants, community engagement programs or state and community-run events and festivals. It can’t be all done by one organisation or collective, but rather by a community effort of individuals and initiatives working together. I think there should be more support for people in the creative industries in general; cities can foster the industry with fair workplace standards, affordable facilities to hire for galleries or council/government run spaces and initiatives. Just being aware of the importance of inclusivity in the creative industries and how this all intersects with other factors is crucial. Often it’s more a case of looking inwards than outwards, I think it would be so much more productive if we all looked at ourselves with self-awareness and the same critical eye that we use on others to see what we can do better. I know on a personal level that there is so much that I can improve on to make The Ladies Network better and more inclusive.
The internet has commodified a lot of cultural production—you can get a dazzling array of work just by downloading it off Tumblr and printing it out—how do you help your artists to differentiate themselves?
Arabella: The internet has been both amazing and detrimental for the creative industries. Lots of young artists have made a name for themselves thanks to the internet, but since art can be disseminated via social media channels with such ease, often work gets stolen, appropriated, shared or copied at an alarming rate. It can be really hard to track down the artist behind a work when you come across it online. In some cases this uncredited sharing seems unavoidable and people can easily make mistakes when sharing art, but in many cases it is preventable and it devalues the skills of working artists. We need to work together and do our best to combat this problem!
The artists we work with all have such wonderful and unique styles that their work differentiates itself, so I think it’s more what art consumers and the average person can do to help. When you invest in a piece of work, it really means something. It’s not only supporting that artist so they can continue their practice, it’s also a representation of your own taste and style and is something you can look at and appreciate every day in a really meaningful way. Art doesn’t have to be expensive either! You can get prints for $20 or one-off pieces in lots of price ranges. I love knowing about the people behind the works that I buy, because it makes you that much more attached to the piece.
So, how can people get involved with TLN?
Emmeline: The best thing to do is to email us. We all get hundreds of submissions via email, Facebook and Instagram, so we can't always get back to everyone, but we always do our best! We have a Facebook group that anyone can join and post about their projects and meet like-minded people, so that's probably the best way to be involved. If you have a question or suggestion, email one of us directly! Also just keep hanging out at our events, it's so heart-warming to meet people and have conversations with them, and the more we can support people in the arts in Australia, the better.