Laura Lantieri, 28
Lives in: Melbourne
When faced with those ‘Who are you?’ questions, Laura Lantieri’s answers are often contradictory. She is a perfectionist but she tries not to take herself too seriously. She’s also a straight talker but her nature is equally open and warm. The Adelaide girl, who has called Melbourne home for ten years, is starting to realise that you don’t have to be one thing or the other. And I love this about her.
Right now, she is settling into a full-time role managing a contemporary art gallery in Melbourne. The journey to get there has included completing a Master of Art Curatorship, an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, a stint at the Venice Biennale and a marketing role at the Melbourne Theatre Company, among other things.
However impressive all this is, the thing that really makes her stand out to me is a belief that it’s okay to be driven and yet not necessarily fixed on a singular direction. Because—and we say this a lot here at Friday Best—you really don’t know what’s next.
You seem to me like a girl who knows what she wants. Have you always been this driven?
Honestly, no, I don’t think so. I was always quite ambitious at school but growing up I wasn’t naturally an independent kid. Coming from a big Italian family where everyone kind of yells over one another and everyone’s fighting for attention, sometimes it’s just easier to sit back and let other people fuss over you. So I suppose moving away [to Melbourne] and having that space to make my decisions, I started to own your life a bit more.
I realised I could be whoever I wanted to be. I think that’s when I started to become more assertive as a person.
Have you ever had a negative experience with being so assertive and driven?
Not a negative experience but I sometimes don’t like that part of my character. I get the nickname of being the mother-in-law in my family because I am the bossy one and the one who speaks my mind—which is a terribly unattractive nickname to have acquired! Often I think, Wouldn’t it be nice to be a bit more placid? [Laughs] But there are certain parts of your character that are innate.
There are also times in your life when you have this breath of fresh air moment and you get a chance to reinvent yourself. That happened to me when I moved to Melbourne. It was this moment of, No one knows me here, no one has any preconceived ideas of who I am. And I realised I could be whoever I wanted to be. I think that’s when I started to become more assertive as a person.
Reinvention is a very good way of putting it. It’s liberating when you realise no one is actually going to do a background check, isn’t it?
Yes! It was a game changer, completely.
I think you take on an organisation as much as you take on a role, so if you’re passionate about where you’re working it doesn’t really matter if the role’s not quite right.
Let’s jump to your early 20s when you’d just finished your Creative Arts undergraduate degree. Did you feel ready to go and do your own thing?
No, I didn’t really. The problem was I didn’t really know. I went into creative arts thinking, This is great, it’s broad and it will give me an idea of what I want to do. But 90 percent of the reason I did an Honours year at the end of my degree was essentially to buy myself more time.
It was probably one of the more challenging things I’ve done academically, but I still didn’t feel like I knew where I was headed. And part of the reason I took the job at Melbourne Theatre Company was because it was a good company. I think you take on an organisation as much as you take on a role, so if you’re passionate about where you’re working it doesn’t really matter if the role’s not quite right, because opportunities often arise down the track. And that’s what happened to me.
How did you land on curation?
After my Honours year and during my time at M.T.C. I realised that, as much as I enjoyed it, I didn’t want to commit to theatre and the arts management side of things in the long term. I’d travelled a lot and seen some great museums and galleries at that point and they felt more like places I wanted to work in.
And so I started reassessing. I felt like I needed more study—and also I enjoy study. I’d considered curatorship a few years earlier and thought, I don’t think that’s right for me. But when I came across it again, it seemed to tick the boxes. I wanted a career that would let me be creative in some capacity and allow me to have a degree of academicism without being an academic—basically in a sphere where I’m constantly learning. I also wanted a job that would potentially give me scope to travel. Curatorship fit the bill!
One of the things I’ve learnt is that you have to play to your own strengths. But also not just in terms of your kind of specialty but in terms of your own personal traits.
One of the first internships you undertook was at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. Can you tell us about the main things you took away from the experience, and the value of interning?
The Heide internship was part of my masters and I was really fortunate to land that position. The reason I say I’m lucky is because there are a million other people like me in my industry—just as qualified and go-getting. So it’s hard when you’re competing against those Type-A people.
One of the things I’ve learnt is that you have to play to your own strengths. Not just in terms of your kind of specialty but also in terms of your own personal traits. And as much as I’d like to work as a curator I also have to be open to the fact that I might get into a museum and think, Hang on a second, I’m actually better at philanthropy. Or maybe I’d be better at education. And then you change course. I think you have to be open to that.
One of my biggest hurdles was thinking, Why would they want to speak to me?
In those very early stages it also comes down to who you meet. What’s the best way to go about networking?
I still find it hard to do. It’s something that makes me self-conscious and I don’t think it comes as naturally to me as it comes to other people. But again you have to be true to who you are when you go about meeting people and introducing yourself. If it’s someone you admire I think a degree of earnestness is quite nice. To tell someone that you are interested in their work and that you’d love to be able to talk to them…I don’t think anyone would ever look down on you for that. One of my biggest hurdles was thinking, Why would they want to speak to me?
Looking around at the people you’ve met so far, what kinds of traits do you value in them?
For me, working in the arts especially, I’m drawn to people who are down to earth. I’m the kind of person who likes to call a spade a spade, and I find the pretentious side of the industry tiresome. So the people I value most are those I can have frank conversations with. It’s had such a lasting effect on me, but the curators who work at Heide are a good example. They’re mostly women and incredible at what they do; so intelligent, bright, creative, and they have this great insight. They’re fantastic scholars and they’re very humble. They just get on with doing a great job and they’re generous in sharing what they know with the next generation.
Was that the first time you felt like someone else was looking out for your career when you were at Heide?
Yeah, a little bit. It was the first time I felt I had advocates, which I found really refreshing. It encouraged me to start having more faith in myself and to think of myself as a legitimate individual in the field as well.
It’s very nice to be in a position where you feel like someone’s got your back. Especially during those formative stages, where a lot of what you do is uncertain and you’re not really sure about your own capabilities, you can be in quite a vulnerable position—putting yourself out there and calling yourself a writer, or an artist, or whatever it is that you do. You put this label on it and then suddenly you have to perform as well. But on the other side of the coin, if you don’t call yourself that you won’t believe it.
It’s funny, when someone pays you, it’s like they’ve said, ‘I believe in you enough to give you money. Therefore you are.’
Why do you think the curators out at Heide are like that? Where does that generosity come from?
I think it’s a karmic cycle. They’ve experienced it and so they’ve passed it on. And I like to think that now I’ve experienced it I’ll pass it on to the people who come through my life professionally or personally.
So do you now feel comfortable calling yourself a curator?
Most of the time, yes. The more I work as a curator the more I feel like one. It helps now working full-time in an art gallery. It’s funny, when someone pays you, it’s like they’ve said ‘I believe in you enough to give you money. Therefore you are.’
It’s one of the hardest things to overcome, I think. You really get in the way of yourself when you don’t let that uncertainty help guide you.
How have you gone about shaping what your work life looks like?
Sometimes they’re not actually conscious decisions, though partly they are. For instance, I’ve decided lately that I need to take uncertainty as a positive thing. It can be scary when you don’t know what’s ahead, but often it’s good not to know what’s next.
That’s how the exhibition I worked earlier in the year on crept up. Murray [Walker] called me up out of the blue a few months ago and said, ‘Are you back in Melbourne? Great, let’s talk.’ And a few months later we put on a show together. Of course, there’s always a loose plan and a sense of direction, but if you’re diverted along the way, that’s okay. If you’re too strict with yourself and where you’re meant to be, you’re potentially missing out on another opportunity.
It’s one of the hardest things to overcome, I think. You really get in the way of yourself when you don’t let that uncertainty help guide you.
What is success for you?
I think success is being happy in my job…most of the time. [Laughs] It’s a really hard thing to gauge. For me success is being satisfied, and delivering on what is expected of me. I think beyond that I couldn’t tell you. Not yet, anyway.
What about in your personal life? Where does that fit into your idea of success?
For me, it’s balance between things, and it doesn’t have to be just work and life. It’s also health, love, emotional intelligence, intellectual stimulation—all of those things that can get out of whack so easily.
Over the past maybe ten years, I’ve often felt that things will be really great with work and then terrible in my love life. Or great in love, bad at uni. I think to have a consistent level of satisfaction across all spheres of life would be the ultimate success.
A lot of it has to do with going with your gut—sometimes that becomes your sense of certainty as well.
What do you think are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken so far?
It would be wrong for me to call them risks—they’re probably more leaps of faith. The largest and most formative one was moving to Melbourne when I was quite young and being headstrong in an industry that I would throw myself into. I was fairly ignorant at the time, but I had a feeling that it was going to be good for me. A lot of it has to do with going with your gut—sometimes that becomes your sense of certainty as well.
We spoke a little bit earlier about you growing up in an Italian family. What are the best things they’ve taught you?
I’m almost a little bit hesitant with saying I’m from a big Italian family because of the cultural cliche that’s attached to it but honestly, it’s so important to me.
One of the biggest things I’ve taken away from it is a sense of generosity and love in a familial environment. It goes beyond food and money; it goes to character, and love and support. Both my parents are very much of the ethos that they will do whatever has to be done for the people they care about in their lives. No questions asked.
For me, as well, my parents have been incredibly generous in that they have never held me back from doing what I want to do. And a lot of what I’ve done in the past ten years I couldn’t have had, had they not chosen to support me for various reasons: financial, emotional and otherwise.
If you look back to your sixteen year old self who is thinking of moving to Melbourne, what advice would you give her?
That’s hard…I almost don’t want to tell her too much. I think she needs to work it out for herself.
On a more general note, what do you wish we talked more about?
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to, but I think we should talk more about what real gender equality looks like. Despite making significant progress over recent decades, the reality is that women and men are still not playing on the same field, and this is seriously evident when it comes to the workplace. Statistically speaking, women are higher educated and paid less than men in Australia.*
It’s really a tricky subject because statistics provide a simplistic overview and there are actually so many factors at play, with parenthood being a very big one among them…but if we can start to talk about these barriers, what gender equality really means, and what we can do individually to promote it, then maybe we’ll start to see a change in our collective psyche and the environment around us.
*Check out the Workplace Gender Equality Agency statistics from May 2014.
You don’t know what comes next. There is something nice in that.
One last thing…what has been the most surprising thing about your life so far?
I guess how things tend to always work out if you want them to. And I’m not saying work out with a particular person or a particular job. I suppose it comes down to having the right mentality; being open and positive. And I’ve had that experience repeatedly over the past eight years or so.
If we back track to when I was 21 and in a very different stage of my life, I was still in my undergraduate degree, I was with a college boyfriend, I was loving living in Melbourne and I had travelled a little bit. But I didn’t really think about what was next, beyond perhaps, Okay I’ll find a job when I finish uni. I think there’s almost something really great about that. I couldn’t have foreseen what the next seven years would bring me. And they’ve brought me incredible things.
And you don’t know what comes next. There is something nice in that.
Things I Love
Whether it’s going to the cinema, reading a book in bed, knitting or cooking a proper meal in the kitchen, slowing down and clearing the agenda keeps me balanced.
One of the simple pleasures in life and happily it’s free. Long chats and laughter with my nearest and dearest are hard to beat.
Having that next trip booked (even if only in my mind) gives me something to look forward to. And the actual travelling part is pretty great, too.