“There’s a lot of courage in being an artist. Politically, artists tend to be ahead of the mob and that isn’t necessarily celebrated.”
Paula Silbert has inspired me all of my adult life. As a young artist in a sports mad town, her weekly Smart Arts radio segment validated my own passion for the arts.
Despite a 40 year career in the industry, Paula is quick to say she’s not qualified in the area. But there’s a warm confidence in Paula, and a tenacity that’s taken her through some tough times. She has an unerring curatorial eye and a thoughtful eloquence, totally devoid of ‘art wank’.
6D: Paula Silbert, tell me about you.
“Coming up for 64 tomorrow, I’ve never been more contented with what I do.
“I’m totally unqualified. That said, the arts always filtered through my childhood.
“It’s grown me up, it’s formed my values and my life. It’s my religion. It’s tough as anything but I like it and working in the arts, I get to do what I like.
“Someone once said to me, ‘Diamonds are just coal doing their work,’ and I love that. And I think there’s been a lot of that in my life. I’ve been privileged but I’ve also worked for my privileges.
“It’s very potent therapy – you can’t be unaffected by working with artists.
“Right through life, artists have been the frogs in the pond. They’ve drawn the stories on cave walls and they’ve sat in circles and fed back to the community, it’s a hugely responsible job and I love that responsibility.”
6D: Why are the arts so important?
“When we’re doing what we’re supposed to, which is to reflect humankind, people listen. In revolutions, artists and creatives are the first ones to go.”
“So, we are very powerful; we are powerful in unsettled times – governments don’t like us – but I think it’s our moral responsibility to contribute in settled and unsettled times.
“Everyone is born creative, it’s just some people manifest it in paintbrushes and music and theatre and photography, hip hop…. Others in science, business and engineering….For those who manifest it in dance and song and so on, it’s the deepest form of therapy.
“I run workshops for artists. In those sessions, each person in the room is courageous enough to tell their story. And each time you hear a story, you shake your head because you’re learning something about that person you had no idea of, and it stretches you.
“What does being an artist mean for me? It means serving the community in the very best way possible, with whatever gift that you were given, by having a creative mind.”
6D: What drives you?
“I wanted to be a champion swimmer and I was pretty good. That required getting up in the freezing cold and leaping into the swimming pool six mornings and five afternoons a week.
“Following that black line in the pool had a massive impact on me and I learned that if you wanted to do something you had to follow that black line.”
“You learn to perfect your style, perfect your race, put up with the cold, with someone’s heal landing in your rib cage, and I’m very glad I had that because that requires a real diligence.
“With that foundation, I’ve taken risks even when people told me my ideas wouldn’t work.
“When my best friend, Bob, died of AIDS I had $300 in the bank. I was exhausted but I thought, ‘I reckon there’s a place for the arts on commercial radio.’
“I knew Bob would say, ‘Just get on with it!’
“People in the industry said, ‘That’s never going to happen!’ but I just followed that black line.
“I wasn’t a journalist, I didn’t speak or read particularly well – nothing was really going for me to be on commercial radio! Especially to be on what became the longest running number one commercial station. I spent that $300 to put down a recording of Smart Arts – I didn’t breathe for 90 seconds!
“I took the recording to Gary Roberts at Mix 94.5, who gave me three months on air if I found a backer. I had no experience but, bit by bit, I found major backers. Thus Smart Arts endured for 15 years over a 20 year period.
6D: Does it fuel you, to prove the doubters wrong?
“I haven’t taken the most trodden path, which hasn’t helped me. But I’ve taken the path that I absolutely believe in. When I’m working with my artists I say, ‘Please make the effort to do what inspires you. Don’t let this be the thing that you regret.’ That’s part of my own ethos.”
“It’s not easy, but I know no other way – I see things that need to be done.
“I’ve noticed in the industry that people aren’t moving with the changes in the world, and we’ll be left behind. We have this massive community of millennials, who we’re not plumbing for information. They’re talking to the world, and we’re not listening to them. I want to be part of that.
6D: What are you working on right now?
“I am door knocking for someone to invest in my professional development workshops. That really fires me.
“And I’ve been working on a project for the last two years with a young man who is hugely successful in the world of broadcast media. We’ve been building a national digital media company from the ground up.
“Radio has always fascinated me, since I crept into the station wagon as an eight year old to listen to rock’n’roll. And now here I am, involved in creating a media company. It’s extraordinary.”
“And I’m working on another arts program. I’m very interested in how people succeed and how they surmount their struggles. Asking how they did that, what worked, what didn’t.
“They’re my two great passions.
“Here I am in my sixties, feeling like I am almost ready to be an elder and give back. I’ve never been so excited about my career.
“I hope I’m given another couple of decades because I just want to go Gangbusters!”
6D: What makes you feel like you are now coming into your own?
“It’s come from some substantial kicks in the pants. Some immense disappointments, where I’ve had to believe in myself enough to reinvent myself. Those major calamities that we all go through.
“I have a mentor in the States who said to me after a particularly difficult time five years ago, ‘Pick a period of time to be as angry as you want, then get on with it.’
“It acknowledged the horror of what had happened, but that I had the choice to move on.
“Through my workshops, I get to watch people rise to where they want to be, and that’s so fulfilling.
“I can look back and see the experiences and calamities were necessary to move forward. Just like back when I first got into radio, I needed to be jolted by my best friend’s untimely death.
“My older brother, who’s successful in business, says, ‘You’re like a street rat, kid. You might not know the fancy words, but you’re smart and you know how to survive. Get over it, go and knock on another door.’
6D: I love the way you talk about the arts; you don’t dumb it down but it’s accessible.
“None of us like to be shamed, that we don’t know what’s being talked about. To unnecessarily talk in jargon is unacceptable.
“We should absolutely talk about the tough subjects, but in a fashion that people can understand. Otherwise, we are making ourselves exclusive and excluding. We can be intelligent, provocative, academic, and still make ourselves understood.”
“To be otherwise is to me pompous and doesn’t help on so many levels – from government investment, to people coming to our events.
6D: As someone who is terrified of telling her own story and consequently hiding behind telling other people’s, I’m interested to know how you give people the courage to tell their stories.
“Little bit by little bit. I think universally we rail against public speaking.
“I always practice in front a mirror, that’s pretty daunting. It’s just practice, practice, practice.
“It’s swimming up and down the black line in the pool, again and again and again. All artists perfect their practice through repetition.
6D: Who inspires you?
“So many women inspire me. I’m at the point in my life where I am focusing on the cup half full; I love it when someone acknowledges they were broken and they have overcome it.
“When I see people overcoming adversity, I’m inspired. They don’t have to become the prime minister, frequently their stories are drenched in humility.”
“My mother is quite a way on her dementia journey. It has broadened my empathy, hearing how other women handle similar experiences – there is no rule book for dealing with it. The way they handle it, that’s inspiring to me.
“I’m passionate about older people becoming successful in their later lives, to start their dreams now; retirement is not the only option.
“And millennials, I just love ’em, I want to hear much more from them.”