Jude Kelly has been artistic director at the Southbank for 12 years. It seems so much longer, not because her tenure has been a yawn-making bore, the very opposite. Hard to imagine the place without her.
She’s standing down just a few months after the Southbank’s new CEO took over, another woman, in order to be with many other women in making the Women of the World festival, WOW, that she invented for the Southbank in 2010 into a global event.
Her tenure has not been without controversy, and not everyone is a fan. There were the summer musicals she tried to get going, at which some sneered that she was merely trying to revive her directing career. Actually, she wanted to fill the Festival Hall in the notoriously hard summer months, turned to what she knew, it didn’t work, and moved on. And that slightly awkward moment when her press office tried to plant a fake blog heaping praise on one of those shows when everyone else had been slagging it off. Embarrassing, but a betrayal of enthusiasm rather than slyness.
And there was the wretched skatepark. The centre had been designed with an undercroft with no determined purpose, which became inhabited – squatted you might say - by skateboarders. She and her boss Alan Bishop wanted a “Festival Wing”, a new vision for the Hayward, QEH and Purcell Rooms, which would incorporate a glass box of a rehearsal centre where passers-by could watch the evolution of art. The underdcroft would have incorporated a retail development that was a key part of the funding equation. But though they were offered a brand new purpose built place nearby, the skateboarders wouldn’t have it, mounting a pretty nasty online campaign (one of them rang me up after I'd written about it to say that what I wrote was ”crap”, and then unable to think of anything else to say hung up). They won the day when Boris Johnson, the mayor, put his wetted finger in the air and dished the scheme he had already given approval for. Kelly had to rethink the whole thing, scaled down, and she will open it in May before she leaves.
What Jude Kelly has done for the Southbank is to make it a real arts centre, where art happens and is seen to happen, rather than the municipal gesture to predictable community creative activity it was for most of its life. She came just before the £91m refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall was completed which Michael Lynch had been brought in to get done, and the new limelight gave her an arena to bring the word festival back to the place.
She got Antony Gormley to people the buildings with his sinister figures, standing eerily to attention on the skyline around this hive of creativity. She brought markets into the Belvedere Road forecourt, a beach to the riverside in the summer and Christmas markets in the winter, made the resident orchestras play outside, brought dance to the RFH, made gardens out of the cold, grey walkways. She was a significantly powerful agent for bringing female creatives on, getting them on her staff, and even giving them an annual festival, and she didn’t need to wait for the egregious behaviour of showbiz men to give her permission to make the case for women in the arts.
None of that takes into account the vital role she played in bringing the Olympics to London in 2012, insisting on the arts being at the heart of the bid and then, unaccountably, being sidelined when Tony Hall and Ruth Mackenzie took hold of the Cultural Olympiad. Or her career running the West Yorkshire Playhouse, or as a director, or as the founder of Metal, the grassroots creative co-operative that is bringing the Thames Estuary to life. Or her generosity and kindness.
She didn’t get everything right, but a lot of what she did was. And she made the Southbank Centre sing for the first time.