Irish Writers’ Centre Director Valerie Bistany

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Valerie Bistany is a professional arts manager, producer & events coordinator with over 25 years of international experience in Ireland, England and the USA working with organisations such as Dance IrelandDublin Youth Theatre, the Abbey and Pavilion Theatres. She is currently the Director/CEO of the Irish Writers Centre where she has worked since 2013.

For the best part of her career prior to this, she worked in a freelance capacity in programming, strategic vision planning, as an independent evaluator and as a creative mentor in the professional arts and voluntary sectors with The Ark, Tivoli Training Centre, DIT and with various artists and arts offices, amongst others.

Also a certified mediator, Valerie began mediating as part of a political dialogue facilitation team working with Northern and Southern Irish politicians at Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and has since worked family, community, workplace and elder mediation, both on a professional and a voluntary basis. She was a founder member of Facing Forward, a restorative justice NGO that promotes and offers training in victim-offender mediation.

Originally from Lebanon, she has lived and worked in England, Italy, Spain and the USA, but has made Dublin her home these last 28 years.

What about your work motivates you? What is your forte and what do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strengths do you admire in others?

I’ve been lucky enough to work in the arts for my entire career. My roles have always been in a supportive capacity to artists – this has included stage management for touring drama and dance,  a variety of administrative and production roles, and in the last decade or so working as a creative consultant to arts boards and arts offices, and a creative mentor with individual artists.

What I love about the arts is how an idea can manifest into a creative work through a collaborative process – even the ‘solitary’ arts of literature or visual arts cannot stand alone once they are created – they need to be born into the world and that requires connecting with others to bring them to an audience. This is where someone like me comes in. What I can bring is an experience about many areas of the arts and pragmatic yet ‘arty’ approach to guide a work to fruition. I think I have a strong sense of vision and a facility in being able to define a suitable process which is unique to the project, while also holding the big picture.

Of course, none of this can happen without the right team of people, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with incredibly talented and committed practitioners: artists, producers, administrators, actors, dancers, artists, the list is long. I think that those who have chosen to work in the arts have (that overused, bland word) a passion, but one which goes beyond the call of duty, one that has become an existential condition. (In 1990s artspeak it was coined as the “hidden subsidy” in the Irish arts sector.) The insecurity, the low irregular fees for such long hours would not be tolerated in any other profession, so what is it that sustains artists? It requires a kind of resilience bordering on stubbornness, a self-conviction in spite of the knock-backs, hardship and loneliness, and yes, a love for doing the work. This is the kind of courage that I admire in artists. To quote Erica Jong’s famous book, they “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

When your creative well runs dry, how do you refill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I am not a practicing artist, but even as a producer/facilitator, creativity is important for visualisation and I have needed to persuade others that my ideas could help them. In my current role as director of the Irish Writers Centre, I would say that at least 95% of my work is administrative and about 5% is creative. Ironically, it occurs best when the pressure is on (say, when I have a funding deadline) that I really need to think fast and flesh out a project or idea so that it is comprehensible to others. That inspiration comes ‘off-piste’ on a daily basis, often when I’m not at work. For instance, I was watching the Late Late Show one Friday when they had someone on who I thought would be a great speaker for one of our collaborative cross-border programmes aimed at emerging writers. We didn’t contact her in the end, but her interview honed my thinking about suitable speakers, and indeed, we may try to get her again, down the line. In this job, you are never really off duty – and this is the kind of vocational quality that is required in working in the arts – but it comes easily if you are interested in your work.

Personally, I find that my own (non-work) creative ideas come to me when I’m an audience member – often in the theatre – when whatever is going on onstage sparks off a chain of thought which leads to an artistic idea. It can also happen when reading or hearing interviews, particularly with writers and activists.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I have always found it easy to be my authentic self, and while I may not always be everybody’s cup of tea, in the main, the person I am has connected positively with others and I have made a reasonable success of myself as an arts practitioner. I am not an aficionado of social media, though I do keep an eye on it in respect of my job. As a resource organisation, sometimes the IWC can be criticised for doing something or not doing something, and oftentimes, our intentions are misinterpreted or misunderstood. It can be said heedlessly, which is hurtful, but I am trying to develop a thick skin about these things. People forget that there are other humans running institutions and that it is not a faceless entity.

However, if I were a professional writer, I would be answering the question differently, because I would be referring to my artistic voice. Artistic voice is any artist’s life study. In Spanish, “dar a luz” translates to “to give to light” – a poetic construct for what we call giving birth – the image it evokes is the crowning of a baby’s head as it emerges from the mother’s body. This is how I see the artistic voice – it emerges from the deepest core of oneself it is a hugely precious and fragile thing, which needs much loving nurturing if it is to emerge and thrive.

What inspires you to work with artists and in a creative field?

There is no doubt that much art that is created is a bit hit and miss. But when it is good it brings us out of the mundane day to day by connecting us to meaning, and when it is really good, it connects us at a deeper core level. You know when a piece of art connects because it communicates itself intuitively with a truth and integrity told in a way which you have never experienced. Exposure to multitude of artistic works creates many acts of truth which increases our sense of belonging to one another. Belonging to one another on this planet, which is incredible, and our existence in it quasi-unfathomable.

Do you think an artist’s national identity influences them?

Yes, I do. Invariably, an artist’s individual realm of existence is the pallet from which their art is created. There is the old adage “write what you know”, which has much truth and merit.
However, I would be equally encouraging of writing what you don’t know, for how else can you learn and grow to expand your horizons? When I was working in youth theatre, a leading playwright and screenwriter asked me why I was so keen in providing opportunities to bring young people abroad. I found it an incredible question to be asked – surely, I thought, there was everything to be gained from travelling: the act of getting there, negotiating being away from home (perhaps for the first time), being in a group setting, experiencing a new culture and language, and most importantly, seeing and feeling the impact of all of this on oneself.
I’ve continued to ponder the question, and now I can also see that he may have been saying, surely there is so much to see, hear and learn right here in Ireland. Yes, that is also true, if you can take the cultural lens off, but it is only by going away that you can get some distance from your national identity, get to understand it by holding a mirror up from across the waters, and seeing which parts of the reflection you believe hold true.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Difficult question. I get depressed, like everyone else! But I find keeping physically active a great help – I cycle to work every day and teach Ballet-lates, a hybrid form of pilates and ballet. I also sing in a choir with a great bunch of people. Staying active and connected are important to getting through bad times. But if I’m lucky enough to get constructive feedback, that really softens the blow and shows a path towards improvement. In my job, I often have to send out rejection emails to applicants of various residencies or programmes, and, remembering the many times I’ve received impersonal rejections, I take great care to try to explain (even in a general way) why their application didn’t succeed this time, encouraging them to try again.

What do you think is the value of collaborations, artistic and otherwise?

I have said much about this already. A fulfilled life includes other people.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What do you think artists can do to help overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Again, I have described this above in respect of the commitment and courage required. In this respect, one often hears: ‘don’t give up the day job’ and ‘don’t marry another artist’, and while this may seem flippant, there is truth in not being financially rash. Everyone has a different level of tolerance in respect of their financial needs and I would advise anyone transitioning to becoming a full-time artist (or freelance anything for that matter) to cast a cold eye at what the future might look like without the financial security of a regular salary.
The other thing that often gets overlooked is the loneliness of being an artist, the lack of routine and potential isolation. If you don’t have the personality, self-discipline and drive to lead that sort of life, and you think you can continue with a ‘day-job’ while also creating art, then for goodness sake, do that.

Many artists work best when they continue to have other daily stimuli which may feed their art. Think Flann O’Brien (journalist), Anton Chekhov (doctor), Philip Glass (plumber), Bram Stoker (theatre manager), performance artist Amanda Coogan is a professional signer for the deaf and most remarkably, one of our Novel Fair winners Catriona Lally (also winner of the Rooney Prize) continues as a cleaner in Trinity College because it not only pays the bills, but the physical act of cleaning is part of her mental preparation before she writes in the afternoon.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

To put it simply, I think a life without creativity is a life half-lived. Luckily, creativity is a very broad concept which can interpreted in many ways, and most people do engage in some level of creativity, as defined by them. It provides an avenue for curiosity and fun – ideally, it is about finding a way back to our younger selves, as children before self-awareness kicked in, and connecting in with authentic self.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do they have a “responsibility” as an artist?

In this age where, increasingly, entire sociology, history and philosophy departments in universities are being axed, where, with the advent of coding as a new subject, history is being dropped, where critical journalism is an endangered species, where social media and fake news make a mockery of truth and history as we have known it heretofore, there is a crying and urgent need for those who can reflect our world back to us in a way that we can make sense of it. There is also a need for those who can act as a barometer for ethical standards and to express our humanity to ourselves in a variety of modes. In all the bad news that assaults us daily, there is also a need for those who can see and show us the beauty in our world and the love and kindness. That, I believe, is what artists can do in a way that no others can, by doing it though their own sense of truth and authentic voice. In reflecting the world back to us, warts and all, artists make a powerful contribution to keeping us human.

First published 29.05.19

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply