Michelle Leonard’s ongoing quest to unite rural and urban Australia through the arts


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Michelle Leonard is on a crusade to close the cultural gap between the two worlds she works in – inner Sydney, and rural NSW.

Her not-for-profit, Moorambilla Voices, is an award-winning arts organisation that provides music and arts education programs for children living in regional, rural and remote Australia.

That passion for rural Australia is what secured her the 2023 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award National Runner Up title.

More than a year on, Michelle reflects on the day of the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Gala Dinner and National Announcement fondly. She recounts watching the previous alumni come into their own, which she recalls as “a beautiful guidance opportunity.”

“The whole day was a great insight into the calibre of humanity that this award aggregates – and that was really life affirming.”

“I don’t probably have as much experience with media as people seem to think – I have a lot of experience conducting and running events and concerts though, so I can relate it to the feeling you get before a performance.”

“It’s like someone’s getting ready to pop open the champagne cork, all the bottled-up energy, and you know that it’s going to be spectacular.”

“The collegiality of that sense of anticipation was very, very lovely.”

Michelle recounts observing the ‘real integrity’ that the finalists were given in their video introductions on the evening, created by Anthony Rizzuto from Otto Studios.

“It was obvious they were made with a lot of love and real joy. It allowed the audience – people from all around the country – to feel that they were in the presence of a cohort of people that were worth this amount of emotional and financial investment.”

As a new member of the alumni, Michelle looks forward to developing meaningful connections within the cohort.

“I’m interested in long term relationships and creating connections with long term outcomes rather than networking at a surface level, so that I can look back and say, ‘That was part of the legacy I wanted to be able to contribute’.”

“I am vastly interested in the opportunity for AgriFutures to create richness of value within their alumni. I’m excited for what the future will bring.”

The impact of being involved in the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award was different for Michelle in many ways. Unlike many other finalists and winners before her who are emerging leaders in their industry, Michelle had already established herself as a respected and in demand figure in the Australian arts.

Michelle utilised her National Runner Up bursary to propel ambitious projects, traveling to Stockholm to present papers and workshops to strengthen the choral ecology of similar European regional choirs.

“I wanted to learn from those who have successful and innovative programs in rural and remote communities all over the world and benchmark our own. I am visiting a likeminded choir called Arctic Voices – near the Arctic Circle!”

Michelle’s bursary as a State Winner went directly towards funding the first regional performing arts recording at the Sydney Opera House – a collection of seven new works created featuring three Indigenous languages.

The album was picked up by ABC Radio National and ABC Classic FM and was promoted by the national broadcaster as a Featured Album for Australian Music Week.

“It’s taken me 20 years to get to that point,” Michelle says excitedly.

“On our budget line, it was really very useful for us – the return on that investment ended up being huge.”

Later in the year, Michelle’s National Runner Up Award bursary was also used for Moorambilla’s ‘Maxed Out’ ensemble, the jewel of the organisation’s annual program.

“These adolescents were the ones that delivered that particular CD and they’re the ones that will be creating the next short film ‘The Shape of Sand and Smoke’. Those kids are the quintessential representation of what we are trying to achieve – calm, connected, focused advocates for community and artistic excellence as a lifelong pursuit.”

“That money felt like a very fine investment in the future leaders of the rural communities we represent.”

Her advice to future applicants? Know what you do and why you do it.

“You might have an exceptionally good business model, seeking to address a humanitarian or ecological or medical issue that is clearly going to benefit many other people. But the people that last the distance, the ones who don’t get jaded and burnt out, have worked out their ‘why’.” That will keep you motivated.”

Michelle identifies the commonality within the Alumni as a deep respect for the intellect of people who grow up in, live in and serve their rural and regional communities – she describes them as ‘driven, capable, generous’ people.

“The best opportunity I was given through the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award – and will continue to be given – is to meet people that are excellent in a field outside of my own and learning transferable skills from them.

“I am delighted to be an alumnus – it was wild.”

In addition to being the 2023 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award National Runner Up, Michelle Leonard was named the 2023 Organisational Luminary by the Australasian Performing Right Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society. She was named the 2019 Sydney University Alumni of the year, and in 2017 she received an Order of Australia for services to the arts and community.

Moorambilla Voices perform on Sunday 23 and Monday 24 June 2024 at the Sydney Opera House with VOCES 8 and chamber ensemble and will also perform a farewell private concert for their Patron Her Excellency Linda Hurley at Government House Tuesday 25 June.

Tickets for the 2024 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award Gala Dinner & National Announcement are now on sale at early bird prices until Tuesday, 11 June 2024 – secure your seat at this prestigious event before they sell out.

Book tickets to the 2024 Gala Dinner and National Announcement
Find out more about the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award
Find out more about Moorambilla Voices

Image Caption: 2024 NSW Rural Women’s Award State Announcement. Pictured left to right: Cressida Cains, 2020 State Winner and National Runner Up; Rae Knopik, 2024 State Finalist; Rebecca Keeley, 2024 State Winner; Ruby Riethmuller, 2024 State Finalist; Michelle Leonard, 2023 State Winner and National Runner Up.

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