In Conversation with Jane Chisholm

Jane Chisholm, BA Photo RMIT 1980 (Aka Cha Cha)

Not long after finishing secondary school in Brisbane, with ‘Asia on a Shoestring’ as my only guide, I went backpacking along the hippie trail. That’s where I found my love of photography. After Asia, I could not bear to come back to Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, so in the late 70s, I fled to Melbourne, where I found live music, fashion, coffee and a free style of living. It’s been my patch ever since.

I quickly got a job at Val Morgan selling cinema slides cold calling, but I knew I wanted more and decided to be a photographer. It was really hard to get in, but luckily I was selected for a three-year BA in Photography at RMIT. I was its first female graduate. I then became a photographic assistant full-time at Hughes and Millott Photography in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, before freelancing with studios around Melbourne and in London.

After more OS travels I returned and started my own studio with Sally Marks called The Ladies Lounge (mainly because The Banana Lounge name was already taken), but it did the job. We painted the walls pink, got lots of jobs and we did well. Tired of all the constraints of running a business (we preferred lunching to invoicing), I heard about a job launching a new magazine in 1984 called Harper’s Bazaar. Again I had luck on my side and with no experience in magazine sales at all, I got the job.

I loved the publishing industry and it loved me, it’s where I got my nickname Cha Cha. For 20 years, I was pounding St Kilda Road visiting advertising agencies and taking people to lunch and parties. Besides Harper’s Bazaar, I was part of the launches of Good Weekend, Who Weekly and InStyle magazines to name my favourite few, working for Fairfax, ACP, News Ltd and Time Inc along the way. I became the first female President of the Advertising Club of Victoria, something I was very proud of. Squeezed in there, I have sat on Letterman’s chair, had cocktails with Omar Sharif, met Fidel Castro wearing only my bikinis and, against all advice not to talk back to him or touch him, I told Rupert Murdoch that he was wrong about the Melbourne market and playfully punched him to prove my point.

I had a baby at 40 and I felt I needed a break from the corporate world. We moved to Apollo Bay and had our sea change for a new chapter of life. Having no idea how we would earn an income in a tiny seaside town, I was lucky enough to meet two fabulous women and we worked on resurrecting the bankrupt annual music festival. I became the marketing and PR manager, with no experience in the music business or festivals. I had only my gift of the gab to fall back on, and Apollo Bay had three successive sell-out successes and was nominated for two Helpmann Awards for the best contemporary music festival in Australia. Then I got run out of town, seriously!!! I was told “to get on my high heels and get out of town.” Long story!

Returning to the big city led me to three fabulous years at Gasworks Arts Park in Port Melbourne as a marketing manager in community arts, working with the resident artists whom I loved and which led to an ABC documentary. ArtsHub followed, where I learnt all about the digital space in the arts and then to the Big West Festival in Footscray for a few more years in grassroots cultures, then back to ArtsHub for another stint.

In nearly every job I’ve had, I knew nothing about any of them really, but just going in cold, learning as much as possible, taking a lot of risks and having a sense of humour has helped me survive and thrive. I had planned to retire and go back to my first love, travelling, and move to Vietnam based out of Ho Chi Minh City, but nobody knew how 2020 would play out, so as luck would have it, I’m contracted to Yarra Ranges Council in their Creative Communities team and loving it. Who would’ve ever thought someone as loose as I am would survive the rigours of the local council!

Distilling all those parts of my career, the one thing I value most is forming relationships and being honest with anyone I deal with. That’s my secret sauce. 

What is the biggest challenge in your career?

No doubt the Apollo Bay Music Festival was a huge challenge. In 2005 I left Melbourne at the peak of my advertising sales career managing big teams for big publishers, having a vast and varied network and moved to a tiny town where I knew one person. Luckily that person was Liz Carr the daughter of the original music festival founder Betty Carr and she approached me to be the PR and Marketing Manager and be part of the new committee to revive the bankrupt defunct festival. Then I met the powerhouse president Larelle Fitt who pulled together an all-female team and the fun began. I had no formal training in PR or marketing but I did have the gift of the gab so I leveraged my advertising contacts to find the right media contacts. The first festival was very successful (double the tickets sold than budgeted) due in part to great editorial coverage. The very first thing that made a huge difference was having the media launch in Apollo Bay so the media could see the beauty of the location on the beach foreshore. Previously it had been in the Espy. I bribed the journos with free crayfish. It was small but the three most important rock writers came plus the PBS manager and it was like a scene in Reservoir Dogs when they hit town. They supported us for three years and I thank my lucky stars we all met that day… and night as they had a sleepover in the pub.

Who is one person you admire?

Linda Fleet. I call her HRH as she is my Queen at Creative Victoria. We first met when I was at Big West Festival and she was very supportive of the festival and indeed of arts in the west. Her relationships with and her knowledge of all the arts organisations all over Victoria is incredible and she has a great team around her providing guidance and opportunities for creative industries to grow. Linda is very honest and has great emotional intelligence and knowing I can ask her advice has been a great support to me. We need more Queen Linda’s in the world.

I have also worked with great editors and some great CEOs over my 20 years in magazines. I guess my two favourite TIME Inc bosses Bruce Hallett and Marty Gardner when I worked at Who Weekly are at the top. Both being Americans with big budgets and a great understanding of the magazine business they knew how to succeed in a very competitive space. They also rewarded hard-working teams; “work hard and play hard” was the motto so we had the biggest parties and also incredible luxurious conferences. But there was hell to pay if you didn’t front up because of a hangover!

What are 3 things essential to someone starting out in the creative industry?

Integrity, ability to listen and having a mentor. Things are changing rapidly so having someone more experienced in the creative sector to help guide you through career opportunities and explain where it would lead is invaluable. Someone like the fabulous Sally Brownbill is a good start.

Is there anything different you wished you have done?

Not really. I’ve been lucky to love every job I’ve had (that doesn’t mean every job was easy) and getting sued by hillbillies isn’t fun, but I’ve always learnt something new or something not to do, which has led to something else.

All in all, I’ve had a brilliant career.

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