Cloud Nation, by Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro

From an arts degree to helping transform Sydney's public spaces

12 July 2022
What do a jeweller, gallery founder, and public art and cultural projects manager have in common? An arts degree.
From jewellery maker to impactful creative industry specialist for a global city, Kelly Robson epitomises the possibilities of pursuing the arts.
Portrait of Kelly Robson

It’s not every day an arts graduate gets to play an integral role in how public art is delivered – or rather, it’s not every day the realisation hits on how influential public art can be.

For someone like Kelly Robson, Specialist Project Manager, Public Art & Cultural Projects at the City of Sydney local council, the value of public art can’t be overstated.

“Whilst my role on the projects I manage is to get the best outcome for the project and ensure creative integrity and intent are maintained – ultimately, my clients are the community,” she says.

A lot goes into making a city a place where people want to live and work, and nurturing culture and creativity plays a huge role in that.
Kelly Robson
Image of Kelly Robson, University of Sydney graduation

Pictured: Kelly Robson at her graduation

From little things, big things grow

As a child in Singapore, Kelly had big dreams of becoming a pilot, a marine biologist, and a classical musican. It was studying fine art in London that solidified her desire to become an artist. She found herself taking to object design and arrived in Sydney keen to pursue her interest even further.

“I had heard that Sydney College of the Arts had one of the most highly regarded jewellery and object departments and staff in the world, with an incredible metal-smithing studio,” she says of her completing a visual arts degree at the University of Sydney.

Thinking back on her time, Kelly says honing in and prioritising critical thinking was the most versatile lesson from her studies.

“What I also found incredibly valuable was the training in critical thinking, which I think is such an important skill,” she reflects. “You need to trial and test your ideas to ensure they are robust.”

You have to take risks in the arts, and to a certain extent you learn to wear your heart on your sleeve and put yourself and your original thoughts out there.
Kelly Robson

Being part of an incredible community of artists was also inspiring, helping her to sift through the noise and really hone in on where she hoped to take her career. “I loved the collaborative aspect of producing an exhibition, and I realised I didn’t necessarily need or want to be the artist in the spotlight,” she remembers.

I was more interested in being behind the scenes, problem solving and figuring out the logistics of how to pull off ambitious things that would delight and challenge people.
Kelly Robson
Kelly Robson in front of public artwork, Cloud Nation

How to inspire a global city

With a city as layered, diverse, and rich as Sydney, the remit on how public spaces can operate in a post-COVID world can seem daunting, but it’s one that Kelly takes in her stride.

“One of the things I love about managing creative and cultural projects is that for each one, I get to live vicariously through the many different specialists that come together to execute the project,” she says. “It’s a huge privilege to get even the littlest insight into what makes people tick.”

Knowing that whatever my day will entail, it will be for the benefit of the community I work for. The same goes for everyone that works at the City, and having that common goal makes it a pretty inspiring place to work.
Kelly Robson

The multi-faceted nature of Kelly’s role means her work changes from week to week. Some days are spent in the office, others on a construction site or inspecting artwork, which brings its own new and interesting challenges.

“The nature of my job means I am often managing multi-disciplinary teams consisting of artists, designers, specialist consultants, architects, engineers, gardeners, lighting technicians and many other trades,” she shares. “I get to meet and work with so many incredible thinkers, makers and doers.”

Having come from an arts background means that I can relate to a project from the artist’s or cultural practitioner’s point of view. I understand what their priorities are, why that perspective adds so much value to a project, and importantly how to communicate that to the wider team.
Kelly Robson
Image of Kelly Robson, public art manager standing next to a sculpture.

Pictured: Kelly Robson.

Creating meaningful connections

It was through her time at university, volunteering throughout the network of artist-run spaces, that Kelly became involved in the local creative community. It was here that she was able to refine her approach to her career; from co-founding Sydney gallery establishment, Gaffa Precinct, to eventually working at the City of Sydney.

“As much of my work was in the City of Sydney local government area, I ended up connecting with their opportunities and programs,” she explains. “Eventually I started consulting as a creative industry specialist – advising on some of their projects. When I heard there was a job going in the Public Art unit I jumped at the chance.  I now work closely with the City’s project and infrastructure teams helping to develop and deliver our capital works projects across buildings, streetscapes and open spaces.”

For some, having an arts degree can be daunting when trying to decide which established field or career to end up in – and often, it comes with a little less certainty compared to your conventional specialist degrees.

Kelly’s advice on pursuing a meaningful career?

“Rather than trying to figure out the end goal at the beginning, just stay focused on what drives you personally,” she urges. “Instead of asking yourself what you want to do forever, ask yourself ‘What do I want to do first?’ At the end of the day, for you to truly be effective and impactful on whatever path you choose, you need to be doing what resonates with you.”

The industry changes so fast. The jobs you’re looking at now, will be different in just a few years – and if the job you want to do doesn’t exist, then maybe that’s your cue to create it.
Kelly Robson

Hero Image: Cloud Nation, by Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, located at Green Square Library, Zetland, commissioned by the City of Sydney.

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