Natasha Cica promotes the importance of art
Natasha Cica wasn’t looking for a new job. The Tasmanian-born lawyer, change strategist, businesswoman, author of Pedder Dreaming and co-editor of Griffith Review’s The Tipping Point? was busy trying to make the world a better place through her consultancy Kapacity.org, working with organisations to hold forums for sharing ideas and dialogue, and conducting workshops that enable women to become more confident and effective speakers.
Last year, I took part in a Perfect Pitch workshop for women in Hobart. I was among a circle of women invited by Cica and reigning Tasmanian of the Year Rosalie Martin, of Speech Pathology Tasmania, into the space that exists between the public and the private, between speaking out and dwelling within, between taking centre stage and staying in the shadows. During these sessions, a few poems were read aloud. There was no mention of glass ceilings. The emphasis was on the ways in which we, the women gathered, colluded in the forces that prevented us prising apart our shells. Having arrived expecting a brief course in public speaking, dare I say a quick fix, we left with a renewed appreciation of the richness of life, and an underlying awareness it was a pearl, not a magic bullet, that we were seeking.
Late last year, the day after a Perfect Pitch workshop in Melbourne, Cica did what she regularly did when she visited that city. She went to Heide Museum of Modern Art – which began in the 1930s as the home of John and Sunday Reed and has evolved into one of Australia’s leading cultural institutions. Surrounded by gardens, around a clutch of concrete Modernist buildings, Heide did what it had always done for Cica, brushing her with the awe that beauty and art together can give.
The next morning, as Cica flicked through The Age newspaper, her eye was caught by an ad for the director and chief executive of Heide. Intrigued, she thought, ‘This would be a great job for someone’. The next day she mentioned the role to a friend in Hobart. “But Natasha,” exclaimed her friend, “that’s your job.”
Insisting she wasn’t looking for a job, Cica laughed off the idea. “But then I realised my friend was right,” she says. “This was Heide we were talking about. And I thought about all that Heide represents, both in itself and also for Australia and internationally. At that moment I felt a sense of responsibility to increase a general understanding of beauty. I’ve always felt a strong dedication to beauty, to holding the space open for it and protecting it. And I realised that, if I could make this happen at Heide, it would be my next professional step.”
A few months later, Cica took that step. She left the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where she has lived in recent years – “a city I adore, where the best half of my family lives” – and moved to Melbourne.
“Even though I’m now based here, I haven’t completely left Belgrade,” she says. “For me, Heide is part of a larger international conversation. Given my strong pull to Europe – I have two passports – it’s really important to me that I maintain a dialogue and various projects outside Australia. As a result, I now have two nodes of home, and feel no need to choose one over the other.
“Of course, I also love Melbourne, which to an unusual degree invests in cultural achievement, is authentically multicultural, and is an elegant city. And so even though leaving Belgrade was a wrench, I’m very happy to be here.”
While on the surface Cica is still settling in to her role at Heide, stretching her wings and revelling in her dynamic team and stylish surroundings, at a deep level it’s hard not to feel that she has arrived, immersing herself in the aesthetic promise that makes the museum at Heide glow.
On being shown into her new office by her funkily dressed executive assistant, Cica looks at me darkly. She has just hung up the phone on the removal company that, for a third time, has changed the time when her possessions from Belgrade are scheduled to be delivered – so everything is three months late.
“Can you believe it?” she says. “Honestly!” In the next moment she moves beyond her exasperation, joining me at the long table and benches made from floor tiles, set into metal frames (“they’re part of a larger set, specially made for [the modernist building] Heide II – we’d need about $40,000 to restore them”). Then, after offering me tea or coffee, she asks where I’d like to begin.
In fact, Cica has three homes, not two: Belgrade, her flat at Parkville, and her office at Heide – full of art books, light and open to gardens on two sides. Nothing reflects the synchronicity of her move to Heide better than the current exhibition Call of the AvantGarde: Constructivism and Australian Art – her first as director and chief executive.
Now that she’s in the driver’s seat at Heide, I ask Cica how she feels about the road ahead. “The more mature I get, the more I realise that the world can only be changed piece by piece,” she says. “Everyone has their sphere of influence, whether it’s in the public or domestic realm, and the dance between them. We all have a responsibility to leave the world a better place, even if only a little better. I feel this particularly now that I’m in a leadership role in a world-renowned cultural institution that was founded by two unusually brave, inspiring and quirky people.
“John and Sunday Reed practised the art of generosity in their home, inviting artists and thinkers, serving food and wine, delivering patronage in the making of art, reminding people that art is about ideas – rather than, as so often happens, splitting off the cultural into a different sphere. All this was expressed in their exquisite collection of art, from the mid-20th century, which grew alongside the extensive gardens and modernist architecture.”
How, I ask Cica, does she feel about being in a position of being able to exercise soft power, a concept to which she has long been drawn. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been interested in making positive change, and in being in positions where I was enabled and empowered to do that,” she says.
“When I was a corporate lawyer, a political adviser and a businesswoman – all conventional sites of power and influence – I never experienced any obstruction to my performance or position as it relates to gender. I didn’t really meet this until I moved back to Tasmania about a decade ago, at which point I realised I had to start playing a smarter, more elegant game.
“I still sought power. However, I realised it could be packaged differently to the practices dominant in Australia’s corporate and political worlds – and that this approach might be more satisfying for me.” She pauses. “I will never apologise for seeking roles that carry status and influence,” she adds. “Exercising and holding power has helped me to understand myself. This very much informs the way I am as a leader of people and facilitator of change.”
All this may be connected with Cica’s attraction to the geometric styles of Constructivism, with its grounding in the Russian Revolution and its optimistic spirit of modernity. This bold and at times jarring art speaks directly to her personal history.
“This art has a particular resonance for me because my father is an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia,” she says. “As a child in the 1970s, my father took my Tasmanian mother and me to visit that ‘mysterious Other’ place of his first homeland, which back then was still communist and still reflected on the horrors of World War II. My Serbian aunt fought Nazis as a teenager – and she and the Croatian Jewish part of my family had interesting art on their walls. This is when I started a lived practice of pondering the dissonance and synergies that make up culture, identity and humanity, and began a habit of relating that to my very different life in Australia.”
In some ways, Cica can be seen to have spent the past three decades of her professional life navigating the split between how we as Australians understand ourselves, and the perspective of the “mysterious Other”. This, then, is her challenge at Heide. To hold up to the light the points at which diverse cultures converge, and at which we experience otherness within ourselves.
Clearly, Cica is thrilled to occupy her new position. “My role at Heide has started to generate new and exciting initiatives,” she says. “This season we begin a series of private, themed conversations called The Beauty Salons. The first is about the value of beauty. For these events 15 participants are invited into an intimate, safe and carefully curated home-like space – with me facilitating discussion. The Chatham House Rule will apply, and afterwards I’ll write about the conversation.”
Does all this, I ask, mean Cica has left Hobart behind? What
about Pedder Dreaming: Olegas Truchanas and a Lost Tasmanian
Wilderness – her soulful quest to understand the flooding of Lake Pedder to create hydro-electric power 45 years ago? And what about the social and economic questions arising from her coediting of Griffith Review’s bestselling Tasmania: The Tipping Point?
“When I think about Tasmania now”, says Cica, “at its best I see it as a special incubator of talent. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to leave Tasmania after being raised there. Given its small population, I really don’t think the state offers enough opportunity, space or tolerance for most talented people to remain forever.
“The arrival of Mona and all that it has inspired, given permission to exist, has changed Hobart irreversibly. It’s unrecognisable from the city I grew up in. This is great for today’s young people.
“The one thing that’s still missing is the question of a bigger conversation. Having said that, I keep some projects going in Tasmania. My father and many of my friends live there, and I’d be bereft without it. So I say all this without judgment.
“What I value most these days is cultural community. In Belgrade my favourite cousin would cook me to death every weekend, then we’d stay up until 3am talking about life. In Melbourne, I live at the doorstep of Sydney Rd, surrounded by Turkish and Middle Eastern shops which are full of the kind of people and food that are harder to find in Hobart. There’s a strong and visible Muslim presence in my new neighbourhood – actually, all kinds of people. And so while I’m still exploring my new ‘village’, I can tell that it’s full of people who take a lot of care of each other and their surroundings.”
We end our conversation where we started it, elbows resting on the long table in her office – originally the studio of Sweeney Tucker, the Reeds’ adopted son. “For me, it’s important that Heide is an enchanting place for people to visit,” she says.
“The word ‘curator’ comes from the Latin, ‘to care’. For me, this process of taking care of objects, people, hospitality, diplomacy and community is really powerful. I think care is the strongest virtue upon which real power is built. It’s often seen as a girly thing, but for me it’s core business. It’s hard work to take care.”
Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art is showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, until October 8
“I will never apologise for seeking roles that carry status and influence,” says Tasmanian Natasha Cica, photographed at the Call of the Avant-Garde exhibition now on at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne.