Alumna Jennifer Higgie, at Frieze headquarters in East London.

Creatively determined: Jennifer Higgie, Frieze co-editor (MFA, 1991)

From an arts school in Australia’s capital city to becoming editor of one of the world’s most respected art magazines, VCA graduate Jennifer Higgie (MFA, 1991) has proven that creativity, hard work and determination pays off. Story by Fiona Killackey.

Jennifer Higgie’s CV reads like a bucket list for creatives across the globe; co-editor of Frieze (an international contemporary arts magazine with offices in New York, Berlin and London), screenwriter (for a British film staring Hollywood’s finest), novelist (Bedlam was published by Berlin-New York publisher Sternberg Press), guest lecturer (at various institutions across Europe) and esteemed art critic (penning words for the likes of Magnus Von Plessen, Brian Wilson, Ricky Swallow (BFA Drawing, 1997) and David Noonan (PGDip Fine Art, 1992)). Yet within seconds of meeting her it’s obvious that two distinctly Australian traits underpin her success: overwhelming modesty and an extremely hard work ethic. ‘Maybe it looks like it was easy and smooth to achieve certain things’ she starts from the Frieze Headquarters in East London, ‘but I put in an incredible amount of hard work to get where I am today’.

Higgie’s journey began at the Canberra School of Art where she completed a degree in Fine Arts. Keen to further her understanding of art she relocated to Melbourne to commence a Master of Fine Arts (Painting) at Victorian College of the Arts in 1990. ‘I loved my time at VCA; it was fantastic. We were in a little building on St Kilda Road, which contained the postgraduate studios. It felt so luxurious to have all this space. It was a really small group of people with great teachers to learn from. It was a wonderful and stimulating time. I made some really close friends like David Noonan. I remember a group of us decided to put on an exhibition in the toilets of the NGV, but it didn’t last long before we were found out. David got labeled as the ringleader and we all got rapped on the knuckles. Apart from that little slap on the wrist, I felt there was a lot of support for VCA artists at the time. Because there isn’t a huge commercial base in Australia, everyone does artist-run spaces. I was very involved with all of that and everyone I knew was part of one. I had shows at the Basement Project and Temple Studio. It was a long time ago now, but I remember feeling this great sense of an artist community.’

In 1994, after receiving the Keith Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship, Higgie left the comforts of Melbourne for enticing and unfamiliar prospects in London. ‘I truly loved it here, even though it was really hard.’ In an effort to stay afloat Higgie took a job at a café in Soho called Aurora. ‘It really should have been given an Australian Council for the Arts Awards because there were so many Australian artists working there!’

‘Disenchanted’ with the art works she was making, Higgie took to writing about the art world, the work of her friends and the experiences faced by both. ‘I was a bit of a secret writer in Australia, but then here you can make a fool of yourself and put your work out there because no one knows you so it doesn’t matter. It gives you a certain freedom.’ Impressed by art magazine Frieze, Higgie sent off her work to the editors. Her first commission was a review of Andy Warhol’s self-portraits. The piece resulted in further commissions and finally an offer of Reviews Editor. ‘I remember going, ‘Oh my God, I never expected that!’ in terms of how I was thinking about my writing.’ Twelve years on and Higgie now shares the post of editor with Berlin-based Jörg Heiser, managing the large open-plan top floor Frieze Headquarters in a former girl’s school in Central East London.

‘The feeling of being lucky has never left me,’ says Higgie about her position. ‘It felt – and still feels – like an amazing luxury working with incredibly interesting, nice people and creating this magazine. I write all the time and although it’s a great full-time job, when you’re surrounded by creative people and in this writing environment you can’t help but produce more work. I write all day and I write when I get home. You just do it and it becomes a part of you. In this world, in my world, there’s a very vague distinction between your personal life and your professional life. It all really bleeds into one thing.’

For Higgie being creative isn’t limited to just one medium and while she no longer creates physical artwork she credits her time at VCA with aiding her journey to her current role. ‘I don’t really agree with the distinction made around the title of ‘artist’. It’s not like you stop being creative when you stop making objects. I’ve written a lot, made a film and other things, my creativity has just been chanelled in a different way. I learned a great many things about creativity – in all its forms – from my teachers at VCA.’ In particular Higgie highlights Tim Bass and Norbert Loeffler as inspiration. In 201,  the VCA flew Higgie to Melbourne to give a speech at the graduation ceremony as well as a lecture on humour and art. ‘Tim was my supervisor and it was so great reconnecting with him last Christmas. He was a wonderful teacher and a wonderful man; incredibly erudite and thoughtful. And then there was Norbett, the master of Art History, who is still at VCA and just an amazing lecturer.’

Jennifer Higgie with Su Baker, Director of the VCA
Jennifer Higgie with Su Baker, Director of the VCA

In addition to her teachers, Higgie says the period during which she attended VCA had a profound impact on her view of art. ‘I feel very lucky my art education was in Australia, because at that time there was a real lack of commercial impetus to do anything. I feel like everyone was doing things for the right reasons, exploring ideas, using art and language from the best possible motives. It wasn’t about being careerist or wanting to make money or wanting to a star. I do sometimes get the sense from students who are at London art schools that they are very professional and they want to get onto the very professional treadmill very quickly. Maybe we were a bit more innocent but there was a real genuine engagement with things in a way that wasn’t at all commercialised.’ Laughing she continues, ‘It also meant we were poor for a very long time! I was a waitress for 10 years.’

As one of the most respected critics in the contemporary art world today, Higgie recognises the impact her background has on her appreciation of art. ‘It’s interesting when you come to Europe as an Australian artist. There’s a certain arrogance about centres of the art world: London and New York. A lot of curators would never go to Australia because it’s too far. Being from Australia and coming here gives you a real sense of how falsely focused the art world can be on certain centres when you know that there’s enormous creativity happening everywhere.’

When confronted with her accomplishments, Higgie is overly modest, exposing the Australian knack for downplaying success. ‘Things didn’t happen overnight for me. Being in this industry and especially being in London I got incredibly used to rejection.’ She advises VCA graduates to get used to hard work if they’re looking to follow in her footsteps ‘I think if you’re talented and you work very, very hard at it, something will eventually happen. You have to develop a thick skin and be persistent. For years I would wake up with the fear every morning that, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be a 70-year-old waitress (although I’m casting no aspersions, they’re the salt of the earth), but at the end of the day you need to retain a sense of humour. We’re all going to die!’

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.