So you want my arts job: Arts Broadcaster

Claudia Chan Shaw talks to ArtsHub about her job as an TV and radio arts broadcaster ... among other things.

Claudia Chan Shaw wears many hats. More recently, her career fits into what is labelled a “portfolio career” – many talents applied in many interconnected ways to make one arts job. For Shaw, her career spans fashion design, writing, public speaking, collecting, curating and hosting specialist art tours. She leads the popular Art Deco to Art Now tour series and has taken art lovers to Miami, Cuba, New York, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Wellington and Singapore. Her next Art Deco to Art Now tour is to Miami and New York in November 2024. 

But it is another aspect of her career that ArtsHub wants to discuss with Shaw – her experience as a television and radio presenter. She is co-host and producer of television program, Antiques DownUnder (with Season 2 coming to 9Gem in 2024), and was a familiar face as co-host and presenter of Australia’s ABC TV’s popular program, Collectors. Shaw also hosts and produces Arts Friday on 89.7FM Eastside Radio – a community radio program out of Sydney featuring performing and visual arts, cultural events and in-depth profile interviews.

Shaw was the inaugural curator of the City of Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival for a number of years. On top of all that, she is co-designer and director for acclaimed Australian fashion label, Vivian Chan Shaw, with the designs represented in the permanent collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

How would you describe what you do to a non-arts friend?

The dinner party conversation starter “…and what do you do?” is always tricky. I wear a number of creative hats. I started as a fashion designer and my career morphed into TV and radio presenter, author, arts lecturer, public speaker, cultural tour leader, curator and artist.

I think most people working in the creative industries are multidisciplined – we’re slashies! I love that I’ve been able to make a career out of following my interests and doing what I love.

What qualifications do you need for this job?

Many lecturers and tour leaders are academics, experts in their particular field. I studied at Sydney College of the Arts and have a degree in Visual Communications Design. That background certainly comes into play in my work as a designer and visual artist. And the way in which I present the visual side of a lecture. But when I’m presenting – whether it’s a lecture, a story on radio or television, or on tour – I draw on my skills as a storyteller.

How did you get your start in this career?

My career has been a delightful progression of one thing leading to another. And always saying “yes”! It all began with my obsession with Humphrey Bogart. I have always collected and started collecting Humphrey Bogart memorabilia when I was 12. I then switched the focus of my collecting to clockwork tin toys and wind-up and battery-operated robots. I was invited to share my collection on ABC TV’s popular program Collectors. After that appearance, I was asked to audition for the role of a presenter on the show. I joined the Collectors team as one of the panel of experts and became co-host of the show in 2010.

Collectors opened up a whole other world – a dream job where I got to share my obsessions. As a result, I wrote Collectomania – From Objects of Desire to Magnificent Obsession, and from there I ended up on the public speaking circuit.

After lecturing at the Art Gallery of NSW, I was spotted by Liz Gibson from the Art Gallery Society, who asked if I’d be interested in leading an Art Deco Tour to Shanghai. Would I?! A career as a cultural tour leader followed. The tours are for the World Art Tours program of the Art Gallery NSW and facilitated by Renaissance Tours.

I have always had an interest in Art Deco design. Sometimes I feel as if I was born in the wrong era. I would have been very happy living in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Probably a throwback to my days of watching Bogart films as a kid.

I studied for a BA in Visual Communications Design at Sydney College of the Arts, specialising in graphic design, photography and film. At the time I imagined I might end up in television or the media. I went into fashion.

All of my interests converge as a TV and radio presenter, arts lecturer and cultural tour leader. My topics range from collecting to fashion through the ages, design, art history, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Chinese heritage and travel.

And life is even more interesting now. I’m co-host and producer of the television show Antiques DownUnder. We’re working on Season 2, which is coming to 9Gem this year. Exciting times!

How collaborative is this job?

Television work is very collaborative – working with colleagues to come up with stories and how the story should be approached. Then, on the day of filming, it’s working with the crew and the talent to best present a story. The final editing is collaborative, from taking an hour of footage and breaking it down into a four-minute story, working with the editor to select the best shots to accompany an interview. In lecturing, the process is collaborative in the early stages – coming up with a topic that will appeal to a particular audience, but when it comes to the writing and research, that’s a much more solitary experience. 

Woman wearing black t-shirt in radio studio. Claudia Chan Shaw.
Claudia Chan Shaw presenting ‘Arts Friday’ Eastside Radio. Image: Supplied.

What’s an average week like?

I spend a lot of time researching. I could be researching for a lecture or a tour, or prepping for an interview with a creative for a panel discussion, or for my radio show Arts Friday.  I could be preparing for a story on Antiques DownUnder, or on the road lecturing or filming. Late into the night I’ll still be sitting at my computer writing and researching.

I go down a lot of rabbit holes when I’m researching. You may be clarifying one point and spend two hours reading up on it. And in the lecture or interview, less than 30 seconds may be devoted to that one point. But you had to do the research to get there. It’s so important to be prepared, to be across your topic.

What’s the most common misconception about your job?

That I have such a glamorous life! Jetting off to fabulous locations to film, lead a tour or lecture. That I’m on holiday when I’m on the road. That working in television is not work! That what I do is easy. It must be so easy to simply talk about the topics you’re passionate about. Yes, I’m passionate about my subjects, but you never stop researching, reading, exploring, digging.

How competitive is this job?

The TV industry is tough! Working on an independent production Antiques DownUnder, we’re competing for airtime with so many shows.

The lecture scene is very competitive. I’m with a speakers’ agency, and you’re competing with hundreds of speakers for an MC role, convening a panel or delivering a keynote. You become known for your particular pet topics and soon you’re part of a network and most work is referred. Most days I’ll open my computer and there’ll be an offer to speak at an event or moderate a panel. The facts need to be presented in an entertaining way. I try to find wonderful stories behind the history, to give a lecture a human face, and to have the audience travel back in time with you.

And if it’s an illustrated lecture, the images must be beautiful or intriguing. High-quality images add to the story. A sense of humour is also important. I like to include the audience so that they feel a part of the lecture. They become a part of the narrative, rather than a speaker “talking at” the audience for an hour.

If I’m presenting a design topic, I love it when there’s a little gasp from the audience when a magnificent design appears on the screen to illustrate the topic. An exquisite piece of Art Deco or Art Nouveau jewellery, or a ridiculously high shoe from the Middle Ages in a shoe lecture. It encourages conversation after the lecture. Engagement is key. The most satisfying thing is when a tour member, audience member, listener or TV viewer says to you, ‘I loved it!’

In an interview for your job, what skills or qualities would you be looking for?

In all of my different jobs you need to be a people person. Be well-organised. Even tempered. Well-researched. Good public speaker. Adaptable. Have a sense of humour. If you don’t want your audience catching up on their sleep during your presentation, you need to be a good storyteller.

What’s changing in your professional area today?

In TV presenting, the landscape is full of celebrities who don’t necessarily have a background in TV, media. In any of my roles, being well-versed in your topic is not enough. You’re an entertainer.

My background in fashion design and retail has been fantastic grounding for my current careers. I spent a lifetime looking after customers while working in the fashion industry – delivering good customer service, being upbeat and pleasant at all times, and always considering the needs of the client.

Tour leading is the same. You’re caring for tour members, looking after their well-being and their entertainment, and providing knowledge.

Read: So you want my arts job: Design and Colour Consultant

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you in this job?

There’s a condition known as Stendhal Syndrome where you can become overwhelmed by objects or artworks of great beauty. It’s a physical response where you feel as if you could faint on the spot. While tour leading I have suffered on a few occasions from Stendhal Syndrome. It’s real! It happened to me in New York at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). I was standing with my group in front of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. I had seen the actual artwork before, I’d also studied it in art history. It’s not my favourite artwork. But that day, standing in front of the painting, it just hit me. I felt faint and had to sit down.

The Museum guide looked at me, nodded his head, and said, ‘Yes, this happens!’. And it happened in Prague, when I saw La Nature – an exquisite sculpture by Alphonse Mucha. I swooned and had to collect myself. And it happened again in Paris at the YSL (Yves Saint Laurent) Museum. We saw YSL’s desk … his glasses sitting on the table as if he had just stepped out. In each case, I felt faint, and thought I was going to pass out – a feeling of being dazed. I was overcome by beauty. And I think I’m still recovering!

What about gender balance and diversity in your industry?

The world of lecturing and tour leading is pretty balanced. It is not skewed to particular genders or backgrounds. It’s really about having the right person for the assignment. In TV, I’m happy to see more Asian faces on television these days. We’ve come a long way, but still have some way to go in the broader media.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina