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AAV Artists Talk – Caroline Bowditch on Leadership

“The sign of a good leader is how many other leaders you bring on.” - Caroline Bowditch

Caroline Bowditch

AAV Artists Talk is a video series that feature Deaf and Disabled artists sharing their experience. This video features Caroline Bowditch. Caroline is the CEO of Arts Access Victoria and is best known as a performer, maker, teacher, speaker, and mosquito buzzing in the ears of the arts industry. In this video, Caroline discusses creating space for Deaf and Disabled leaders and how she found her style of leadership.  

(video description: Caroline Bowditch is wearing a blue dress, red love-heart earrings and uses a chair. She is in front of a black curtain.)  


The series was filmed as part of a co-design workshop series to develop programs for young Deaf and Disabled artists, creatives, audiences and arts workers. Each artist responded to one of our values. We will be releasing a video each Tuesday from 14 March to 4 April 2023. 

Click here for more info about our programs for young people.

This program is in partnership with Engage!, VicHealth and Cassandra Gantner Foundation.


Caroline Bowditch:It’s not necessarily delegation, but it’s being able to be honest with yourself about the skills and qualities that you have.

And you are really strong in, and being able to find other people to pick up on the skills that you don’t have.

And that’s not a bad thing.

That’s really good leadership.

I met some of you last week and I’ve met some of you before in other contexts.

But I’m Caroline and I have the privilege and pleasure of being the CEO at Arts Access Victoria.

And I’ve come today for us to chat about leadership.

For a long time, I described myself as an accidental leader, and it’s a bit to the point that some of you have made in that I didn’t kind of all of a sudden go out there saying, I am a leader, but other people kind of bestowed that upon me, which we’ve heard from multiple people.

It really started or came when I was I had a role as a dance agent for change, which is the best title I think I’ve ever had in my life.

It just meant that I got to have lots of conversations with the dance sector in Scotland and everyone involved in it.

And the title really helped because what I started to be able to think about myself.

As was a bit of a catalyst for change.

There was an innate kind of sense that if I was coming in, we weren’t gonna have a passive conversation, but something was gonna happen as a result of me being there and the engagement that we were gonna have.

And mostly it did.

I think, for myself in this leadership role that I now have I mean, when you conjure up, this is the thing I say quite often, when you conjure up the image of a CEO, they don’t look like me.

They wear a suit.

They don’t have curly hair.

They are standing up.

They’re not three foot four.

They don’t use a wheelchair.

Like that’s not what is, what’s the image of a CEO? And I think that was part of me getting over that, too, to kind of go, yeah, I’m unexpected in the beginning that people are warm to me and now I am expected.

And now I say to people, expect me everywhere.

And it actually shifts their thinking about how to create access at events that they might be running or meetings that they might be conjuring up or people that they might think about inviting.

Expect me everywhere.

I do become the face of AAV.

And I do that because I think my background is in performance.

So I’m not scared to do that.

But I never go into a room on my own.

I always go in with the stories, the voices, the anecdotes from hundreds of other disabled artists or other people in the community that.

Willingly and openly share what’s happening for them in life.


So I really wear lacquer, almost like a cloak with me with lots of stories and voices attached to it and people and faces.

And that’s hugely a privilege thing.

When I think about my position description as a CEO, there are three main things that I get to do.

One is around leadership.

So it’s about strategy and it’s about thinking about where the direction of travel for the organisation.

And absolutely, it’s my job also to bring people into that and help us formulate that direction.

But a big part of my job is actually setting the direction of travel, I would say.

Massive responsibility around finances.

Really boring, but making sure that the organisation doesn’t go under.

And that no one does anything dodgy.

I really hear all of you when you say, it’s about bringing people up.

And the sign of a good leader is how many other leaders you bring on.

And I think that’s why this, kind of these sessions that you’re involved in.

Bring so much joy to my heart because I feel like we’re just kind of opening that crack, just kind of go, come on.

And doing out to State, which finished just a few weeks ago.

One of the artists from our community said to me, “You become a door wedge.” And I was like, OK, I’ve been many things in life, but I haven’t been a door wedge before.

But they were saying what I’d done being an art centre in Melbourne on the inside was that it was like I’d wedge the door open, and just kind of go in.

Come on, quick, get in.

While I’m here to hold it open.

Because I think some of the things that have been really important to me in my career and in this role have been about how we…how am I making space for disabled artists, disabled people to rise?

How am I making space for that? Also, how are we holding space for conversations that need to be had with the broader sector, with the bigger wider world to challenge ableism, to challenge assumptions, to do all of those things? How are we holding that space.

And then how are we really encouraging young people, disabled people, the community to really take space? So we can make it.

We can also hold it.

But at some point, it’s really up to all of you individually to take that space.

And how are we making sure that the path for you to take space is clear? There’s lots of kinds of tests that you can do to work out what sort of leader you are, or what your leadership style is.

And my leadership style is that I lead with love.

That was my result was that I lead with love.

And I remember reading it going, what sort of a lead it leads with love.

That’s not a leadership quality.

Someone said, actually, it’s probably one of the most important leadership qualities, because if you’re not leading with love and you’re leading with arrogance or you’re leading with kind of ego, then you’re actually kind of, as someone said before, you’re very in it for yourself and you’re not thinking about the impact that you’re having or that the organisation’s having or whatever.

But I think it comes really down to listening.

And questioning.

Adi will be able to back me up by saying I ask a lot of questions and I don’t ever think that I need to have the answers.

Because I work with a team of amazing people who are much more skilled than me in many other ways, and it’s about not feeling like I have to have all the answers.

In 2024, I will have been in this role for six years and I have said, That’s it for me.

Not because I’m done, but because I think good leadership is about knowing when to step aside and make space for the next person to come.

So over the next 18 months, we will be into a real period of succession planning and looking for the next CEO.

Important thing to know about how I got into this role was that, because also when I got the job in 2018, it was the first time in 45 years that Art Texas had existed, that they had a visibly and openly disabled leader.

So it now has authentic leadership in a way that it never had before.

That’s something we can’t go back from.

I won’t let us go back from that.

It’s really important that the organization going forward continues to be led by a person who is.

I suppose out and proud around disability and the kind of connection to it.

But that happened because the person that was in this role before me, Veronica Pardo, stepped aside and made space for someone to come in.

And that’s how I ended up in the role.

But for the first nine months that I was in the job, Veronica was in the office with me one day a week.

So we were together for the first month, intensely together, while I learnt the ropes.

And then one day a week for the next eight months.

So that I could ask lots of questions and not feel like I had to make it up, but actually I could actually learn directly from her.

And that was really important because I think often disabled leaders fail because they kind of people go, here, we’ve made a space come on in.

But actually, if we haven’t been given the chance to lead before that, and this might be the first time in a formal sense.

People fail.

And then they would kind of get into this self-fulfilling prophecy about disabled people can’t lead.

And we all know that that’s not true, but that’s often what happens.

So we absolutely, definitely didn’t want that to happen in this case.

And so that was the system and the structure that we set up and we will continue to find the way that works for whoever comes in after me to feel supported moving forward into that role.

So I expect you all in the next 18 months to start thinking about whether you want my job, ’cause I’m really… I would love any of you to apply and get it.

Speaker: Thank you, Caroline.

Caroline Bowditch: Thanks so much.