Four weeks after my mentor and friend, Katherine Knight died I was having more success putting tears to paper than ink. She had insisted that I keep writing; that I stay vulnerable and courageous. I made the promise.
Katherine wouldn’t have liked an euphemism – she simply died. Every time I take pause to reflect on the immense impact knowing Katherine had on my life, I am confronted by the reality that this strong woman is no longer physically here. Katherine was best known for her role at the Artswest Foundation, producing a periodical publication about the arts across Western Sydney at a pivotal time in the region’s development. More recently, she came to the forefront as a historian and author of ‘Passion, Purpose, Meaning: Arts Activism in Western Sydney’. Her book is the most comprehensive history of the art sector’s growth across the region and Australian Art education is not complete without it. After the book’s publication in 2013, she continued to blog about contemporary art across West and South West Sydney. It wasn’t an opening if Katherine wasn’t there. It didn’t happen if it wasn’t on the Western Sydney Frontier, or rather, productions often went undocumented if they weren’t on her blog.
Like many, I first came to know Katherine as a cultural, political and environmental advocate. She had a deep respect for heritage and conservation – both colonial and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – often speaking out against their destruction.
I also had the privilege of seeing an independent, generous woman with a great sense of humour, thirst for life and an adoring grandmother. We often exchanged stories over dinner, attended the theatre and shared our notes over dessert. What started as a professional bond quickly became personal and our conversations danced into an array of topics.
Katherine was always generous with her knowledge. She wouldn’t want me to dwell on her absence, so it only seemed fitting to share five things I learned from her during Women’s History Month.
Be mindful of what you compromise
When I first reached out to Katherine, she shared the process of researching and writing her book. This included a non-negotiable when it came to content edits. The font of ‘Passion, Purpose, Meaning: Arts Activism in Western Sydney’ is questionably small because Katherine wasn’t willing to cut any more content. In order to make sure she covered all basis, she opted to shrink the font rather than remove content. She was aware of what she was willing to compromise and what success looked like to her.
Unashamedly move through life as your most authentic self.
Whether it was over dinner or at an opening, Katherine had an undeniable presence. There was something in the way she carried herself physically and in how she articulated her views – considered, concise and with passion. She was always up for challenging what you said and being challenged in return.
Despite the thirst for innovation, some things never change in the arts.
One of the greatest challenges I experienced working in the arts was the tension between new and traditional business models. Katherine and I bonded over not being afraid of embracing commercial models if it meant being independent of government agendas and sustainability. When Katherine was producing Artswest, she took on a commercial deal for greater distribution and thus, awareness for the value of the arts. In her book she recalls,
‘It was already apparent there was a deep distrust of Artwest’s association with capitalism and the corporate world among some we were trying to support. Commercial arrangements seemed much better than government. The bottom line was money. If you weren’t making it, you were gone.’ P88-89.
In setting up State of the Arts Media, we experienced the same resistance – both overtly and quietly – because we weren’t pursuing the charity model everyone had become comfortable with. Where some were excited that we were thinking differently, others retorted that I was being too ambitious.
Don’t be afraid to say ‘that is enough for me’.
Katherine backed me even when I didn’t back myself. As I started another vicious downwards spiral of exhaustion, one of my greatest fears was letting Katherine down. In hindsight, this was seriously misinformed self-talk. Katherine knew too well the strain that advocacy and a deep sense of purpose could have on your personal life. I feared disappointing her because she had publicly declared my work a continuation of her legacy. When I told her I couldn’t do it anymore, she simply smiled at me in the way that Katherine does and reminded me that I should never put the arts before my own health. She loved that I moved into local government in pursuit of financial independence. She told me to ‘change it from the inside’. I should have known the career change would be exciting for her to watch.
Life is about generosity and the simple joy of bringing people together.
Katherine was such a hospitable character. She was generous with sharing her knowledge over meals, her networks and her time. If we were both at an opening she would be introducing me to everyone, with a rundown before we approached them. It is because of Katherine that I have connected with Ian Zammit, Lena Nahlous, Aanisa Vylet and a host of others. Her generosity is something I hope to pay forward. I can’t help but feel that all our conversations about the past and hope for the future were preparing me for when she was no longer here.
Build on each other’s achievements.
Like me, Katherine was a big fan of coordination over collaboration and competition. We agreed the arts sector was terrible at collaboration and worse at coordination. Whether it was my writings after hers, or one generation of storytellers on stage after another, Katherine believed our greatest strength as a society was to build on each other’s achievements. She had a deep respect for Aboriginal culture and sustainability which fuelled her desire to see the peoples and their culture better respected. We are nothing without those who came before us.
I found out that Katherine died making my regular commute to work. The night before her funeral, I got a text message from a friend:
‘Arting is hard, cultural development is hard; especially when there is one less trusted person to look to for advice. You definitely carry her legacy.’
Vale Katherine Knight.