Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly is a cultural tour de force. Jessica Cargill Thompson discovers what’s next for the leading SE1 institution that she has already led through a revolution


Jude Kelly may look like a slip of a thing, sitting in her Thames-side glass-box office, with the 21-acre Southbank Centre site she has presided over as Artistic Director since 2005 spread out below, but make no mistake, she’s a fighter. The good news is, she’s on your side.

Coming from a no means trouble-free adolescence in 1960s Liverpool, she became one of the country’s most respected theatre directors (she was the founding director at both Battersea Arts Centre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse) and is now regularly listed among the most powerful women in the country, a position she uses to champion marginalised groups, promote equality and democratise the arts by giving people the opportunity to get involved.

‘If you have power, I think you have a responsibility to use your influence in a positive way,’ she says. Her work was acknowledged by Goldsmiths University in New Cross last month when it awarded Jude an honorary degree.

Jude, who received an OBE in 1997 for services to theatre, already holds so many honorands she’s losing count (‘I think it’s 13’). Between them they recognise her work in a range of public spheres: community participation, young people, arts education, women’s rights (she started SBC’s annual Women of the World festival in 2010), not to mention her chairmanship of the London 2012 arts, education and culture committee, which essentially helped win the bid. However, she’s still proud to be recognised by Goldsmith’s, a place she describes as ‘one of the most radical academic institutions in terms of where it’s set. It’s not on hallowed ground; it’s in the middle of a very challenging neighbourhood. It has a fantastic reputation for its arts courses and its sense of enquiry, but it also integrates with the community.

‘When I went to get my degree last month, you could tell there were a lot of first-generation students getting to that level of education. And that was my own history. My father was one of 10 and we were the first in our family to go to university, so I know how important that is and how much education changes people’s lives.’

For us denizens of south east London, Southbank Centre has always been a cultural beacon. Most of our journeys in and out of central London pass it and, being located south of the river (albeit only just), means it technically belongs to us. Jude Kelly’s achievement has been to make us all feel welcome to drop in any time. Where Southbank Centre’s austere concrete walkways used only to attract ticket-holding concert and exhibition-goers, who would flee the area as soon as their event had finished if they wanted anything as basic as a drink or a bite to eat, 25 million people a year now visit knowing that there’ll always be something going on – a lot of it in the spaces outside the official concert chambers and half of it for free.

Jude’s so committed to her patch, she even lives right behind it. ‘It wasn’t just about minimising my commute, I wanted to know what the neighbourhood feels like. I want Southbank Centre to feel like the local place. We are an international venue, but also a local amenity and it’s important to find a way of being both.’

The UK’s biggest cultural centre also employs one of the broadest interpretations of the word ‘culture’. Alongside ticketed concerts and major art exhibitions, it now hosts street food, street art, street dance, knitting, gardening, skateboarding, comedy, geopolitics, Polari, play-fountains, pedal-powered snowglobes, traditional Christmas markets, outdoor sculptures created by London schoolchildren, and more.

Of these, it is the skateboarders who are currently grabbing the headlines thanks to a dispute over plans to move them from their historic home in the undercroft beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall to a purpose-built skate park 120m away under Hungerford Bridge. The move is part of the multi-million-pound ‘Festival Wing’ plan, an essential upgrade of the Hayward Gallery, Purcell Room and Queen Elizabeth Hall that will create more arts space, public areas, educational facilities and dedicated areas for young people, and is expected to attract 2 million more people every year.

Jude acknowledges it’s regrettable, but sees no alternative if Southbank Centre is to move on. ‘We are not oppressing the skateboarders and we’re not trying to get rid of them. I can’t think of any other cultural institution in the world that would be spending a million pounds to create a space that will guarantee skating can continue and thrive and prosper.

‘That the entire side of that site can’t be refurbished and can’t be maintained and can’t be made effective for thousands of other people who at the moment haven’t got access to any other space unless you reorganise it,’ says Jude.

Central to Jude’s Southbank vision is the spirit of the 1951 Festival of Britain that turned what was then a post-war wasteland into a place of ‘celebration, congregation and optimism’. ‘Looking at the Royal Festival Hall, you can see the generosity of its foyers and its open spaces. It was built for people to take part in things, not just inside concert halls.’

Jude has also taken the ‘festival’ theme quite literally, programming weekend-long events celebrating everything from world dance to women’s rights.

‘I think festivals send a powerful message of welcome. They allow you to do challenging, thought-provoking things in a way that’s less scary and allows people to get very involved. People are still frightened of words like “art” and “culture”.’

For 2014, she’s looking forward to SBC’s Being A Man festival at the end of January and a children’s rights festival this autumn. But the party to be at will be the mass gay and straight wedding on 30/31 May, marking the new Gay Marriage Act.

‘In my lifetime I’ve gone from seeing gay actors I knew being jailed to them finally having equal rights to get married and have children. It’s so wonderful, we want to celebrate it with a festival.’

Naturally, you are all invited.

Being A Man festival runs from 31 January to 2 February. Proud to Be Wed runs 30-31 May and kicks of the Festival of Love, which runs until 7 September. See southbankcentre.co.uk

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