Performance artist Erin Fowler knows the challenges of navigating the intersecting worlds of art and business better than most. Reflecting on her new dance theatre work FEMME, Fowler looks back on her experience as an artist, co-founder and woman.
“As co-founder along with Amber Cronin of The Mill, I experienced my gender and my appearance playing more of a role in my professional interactions than I had, perhaps naively, thought they would,” Fowler explains.
At 18 Fowler worked as a model and later a dancer, worlds that put her youth, gender and appearance on a pedestal. “However, I didn’t realise that beyond modelling, my looks and my femininity would continue to be the lens that I was most viewed through,” she says. “Even in professional interactions.”
Establishing co-working space The Mill alongside visual artist Cronin in 2013 Fowler found that even as she swapped modelling for the progressive world of the arts, gender continued to shape how people interacted with her as a young entrepreneur. “I wrote endless grant applications, joined boards, made art, became my own bookkeeper, started projects and collaborations and gave of myself to every passionate idea I possibly could. And I loved it, the sense satisfaction that I could make things happen and be successful through my intellect, work ethic, ambition and courage.
“But as our business grew, Amber and I felt like we were taking on a world that did not respect us in the same way as our male peers,” she says. As Cronin and Fowler waded into the intersecting worlds of government, arts and business, they would find themselves in rooms dominated by men. “Out of 60 or so guests, we were usually one of only two or three women – all of whom had dressed the part in lipstick and heels. The cynical part of my mind wondered if it was our intellect and business prowess that had warranted the invite or something else.
“We were often treated as ignorant and spoken to like children,” she says. “We received business cards from well meaning, but patronising older men who asked us questions such as, ‘Do you have an ABN?’ when we were already two years into building our business. In meetings, ideas and concepts were simplistically explained to us, when we in fact often knew more than those doing the explaining.
“We were often asked about our dating status, or if we wanted to get married or have children, and I wondered if my male counterparts were treated in similar ways. I often felt like I had to subtly flirt with the men, whilst also working extra hard to disprove their assumptions that we were less capable.
Fowler found herself in a bind, pressured to “tone down” her femininity to be taken seriously in a masculine world, and pushing herself ever harder to gain the same recognition while avoiding the appearance of doing ‘too much’. “Eventually, the endless challenges and workload took their toll. Three years into The Mill, I started to show signs of burnout and fatigue.
“I finally accepted that I had to slow down and find another way. Both Amber and I handed The Mill over to an amazing new leadership team last year, after seven years of blood, sweat and tears and a whole lot of love.”
With The Mill now run by a new team including director Katrina Lazaroff and general manager Tim Watts, both co-founders find themselves pursuing new opportunities, with Fowler pouring the experience of the last five years into her new dance theatre work FEMME. While FEMME addresses Fowler’s “search for self within the cacophony of gender and sexual conditioning around us”, she is also hopeful for a future where burnout and self-repression aren’t pre-requisites for professional success.
“I am looking for an option where I’m not having a weekly conversations with my peers about burnout, as if it as common as the winter cold, where being busy is no longer seen as a badge of honour, and where choosing to go slowly and look after oneself isn’t seen as weak for all of us.”
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