Arts careers, less glitzy than you might think

Working in the arts is not a route to riches but it can offer interesting work as Ballincollig native, Gillian Hennessy discovered.

Arts careers, less glitzy than you might think

Working in the arts is not a route to riches but it can offer interesting work as Ballincollig native, Gillian Hennessy discovered.

Since May of last year, Hennessy has been working at Triskel Christchurch as the Cork arts centre’s marketing and PR manager. Her remit also includes looking after wedding bookings at the venue.

If Hennessy has learned anything in her career, which was all about publishing for a while, it’s to be “open to opportunities.” She was planning to do primary school teaching but didn’t get the points. Accepted to arts at UCC, Hennessy deferred university for a year and worked as an au pair in New York.

For her degree, she studied English and Italian, and spent an Erasmus year in Urbino in north east Italy, immersing herself in the language which she took up at beginner’s level at UCC. When she finished her studies in 1999, Hennessy says she didn’t really have a plan.

“One day in UCC, I saw a poster for a masters in publishing at NUI Galway. I thought it would be great to be paid to work with books. The next day, there was a post graduate fair at UCC. I got chatting to the people from the publishing course in Galway and applied for the masters which was for one year. Publishing suddenly appealed. I was always a reader of novels. I assumed I’d work in publishing at fiction but I only ever worked in non-fiction.”

Hennessy enjoyed studying publishing but looking back, she feels she should have taken more practical modules rather than literary ones.

“It was kind of like an English degree. But I did take the book editing course with literary agent, Jonathan Williams. I loved it. He taught me book editing skills which are all about practice. We were told that to become a good proof reader takes up to eighteen months while it can take two to three years to become a good copy editor.”

After Galway, Hennessy took a break and then did a couple of secretarial courses in Cork, learning the very useful skill of touch typing. She worked in various secretarial jobs including one as a legal secretary and secretarial work at an auctioneering firm.

A part of me wanted to try publishing and I said if it didn’t work out, I really like office work and am an organised person.

Gillian then hit upon Summersdale Publishing in Chichester in the UK. They were offering a three-month work experience placement. Hennessy ended up working there for two years. She started as a PA to one of the directors before moving into editorial work.

“I jumped the ranks quite quickly, not because I was amazing but because the chief editing manager left. Myself and another editor had to step up and take on projects. It was a baptism by fire.”

The company publishes travel memoirs and point-of-sale gift books. Hennessy’s work included writing blurbs for books, helping to write some of the gift book copy, overseeing interns, writing cover copy, putting together brochures and working with designers.

When Hennessy decided she wanted to return to Cork, she wrote to Jonathan Williams for advice and he suggested she contact Con Collins of The Collins Press in Doughcloyne Industrial Estate. (The Collins Press was recently sold to Gill publishers.)

Although there was no job immediately available when Hennessy wrote to Collins, four months later she was successfully interviewed for a job there as a publishing assistant. It was a much smaller company than Summersdale. Hennessy’s job included “finding the hook in a book that would speak to journalists.

I would pick bits out of the books (which were non-fiction) and then write press releases. I learned how to target journalists and tell them why (coverage of a book) would add value to their programme or publication.”

Unsung Hero, the book on Antarctic explorer, Tom Crean, was the company’s biggest hit. It was published before Hennessy joined The Collins Press. She had to make sure it remained in print.

Hennessy upped her skill-base by doing a course in publicity with Fuzion where she learned all about having her “PR antennae switched on.” She also joined Network Cork and has been president of it for the past year.

After nearly 12 years, she decided to leave her job.

“I wasn’t being challenged anymore. I was almost able to do the job in my sleep. That wasn’t fair on me or The Collins Press. And the authors deserved the enthusiasm of someone who was going to get out there and fight for them.”

Hennessy then attended a career coach “to see where I was going. Maybe it wasn’t going to be publishing anymore.”

Tom Crean
Tom Crean

Various tests on her career drivers indicated that Hennessy needed meaning in her job and working with people. “Money was at the bottom of my priorities.”

One day, Hennessy had an epiphany.

I realised I wanted to do communications in the arts and that I wanted to work in town.

The career coach suggested she hone her communication skills. So Hennessy shadowed a few publicists who were friends of hers. She got in touch with Triskel Christchurch and as it happened, the centre’s marketing and PR manager, Tina Darb, was leaving to take up a job in Skibbereen. Hennessy was thrilled to fill the vacancy when it was advertised.

“I love my job,” Hennessy says. Is it glamorous? “It can be. I go to as many concerts in Triskel as I can, partly to learn more about the type of music we’re putting on. I met John Surman, one of the leading saxophonists in the world, who played at Triskel at the Cork Jazz Festival this year.”

Hennessy’s job involves publicising music, art exhibitions, art house films and the various other strands at Triskel Christchurch. Working in the arts “is challenging. There’s never enough money to pay the artists.” While the centre has funding from the Arts Council and City Council, “we depend on our customers hugely.”

With Cork being a small city, Hennessy says it makes sense to sometimes pool resources, such as collaborating on advertising, with the other cultural organisations in the city. “We have set up a marketing support group with the other cultural centres in Cork. We meet every two months.”

Triskel Christchurch is used as a venue for a number of festivals including the jazz festival, the film festival, the choral festival, the Midsummer festival and Ocean to City.

Will Hennessy ever return to publishing? “I still like publishing and I get to work with books at the Triskel with the Cork World Book Festival which is on here (in April) as well as the library.”

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