Diary: a week in the life of Jude Kelly


I wake up with a stiff neck and realise I’ve forgotten to send my sister a birthday card. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent all weekend immersed in our WOW Women of the World festival in Bradford, which was really successful but very intense. Roughly 1,500 local women and girls shared their stories, ranging from the most inspiring to the most upsetting and challenging. A highlight was activist Malala Yousafzai, who made a powerful Skype appearance despite being ill. We also brought in speakers from some of our other WOWs in Harlem, Somaliland, and Bangladesh. WOW’s become a global movement that I’m immensely proud of, and it keeps growing in response to the glaring fact that gender equality is far from being realised. However, there’s a palpable tension in the air as America goes to vote tomorrow – after the Brexit shock all improbabilities have become possible.

Later at Southbank Centre I introduce Marina Abramovich who is launching her book Walk Through Walls. I like her enormously – she’s an intensely humorous person who talks about her bizarre and often harsh upbringing with wit and candour. Her devotional approach to her work and her originality has created a vast loving public who want to under- stand how her art comes about, and she’s both generous and elusive at the same time. I ring my sister to apologise for being hopeless about the birthday card and go to bed with my stiff neck.


This morning I have a meeting about Bernstein’s MASS, which I’ll be directing in 2018 as part of his centenary celebrations. It feels like strange timing: MASS was written to commemorate the assassination of JFK and is a wild spectacular music theatre piece about the USA in crisis. Afterwards I meet up with Colette Bailey, the artistic director of METAL (an artistic laboratory space I founded in 2002 to provide a platform for artistic hunches to be pursued in community contexts). We’ve just finished the first Thames Estuary Biennial and are now reviewing its success and also the discussing the levels of exhaustion in the small METAL team. She asks why I keep wincing, and I realise I’d better find time to sort out my sore neck.

In the evening I head over to the US Embassy for an election party. By midnight a fearful frisson has taken hold and despite bumping into many upbeat friends, and a determinedly optimistic Sadiq Kahn, I already fear a Trump triumph. At 3am I slink off and watch TV at home as a new political family dynasty is born.


I head into Southbank Centre early for a full day of activities. We are playing host to The Illuminated River Exhibition, a display of the shortlisted proposals for filling the Thames bridges with light. This gives me a chance to catch up with Hannah Rothschild whose foundation is backing the scheme. I speak at the launch breakfast and Hannah asks me to help cheer people up after the election results…a tough assignment, but I try my best!

Later I make an appointment to get my neck pummelled at Ballet Rambert’s clinic and rush over to see my sister with a late present (and more apologies).


Today is a WOW day, and we start with a think-in: sessions where we invite people to brainstorm what the next festival could look like. It reminds me of all the amazing achievements we have made over the last seven years and also that there are thousands of women and men determined to make the world we live in a better place – often against some spectacular odds. In the evening I interview Lord Mervyn Davies for the Women’s Forum Group at Mischon de Reya, one of the many vital relationships that we have made via WOW. Lord Davies is astute and funny on the topics of women on boards and the resistance from many to embracing change.


I have breakfast with Graham Sheffield, head of arts at The British Council. We talk about Brazil and a project I’ve been part of developing there for some years around art and social transformation. I also get some very rare time to catch up on correspondence. At Soutbank Centre we often get over 300 emails a day into the office and it’s hard to really be on top of all the requests, conversations, invitations and meetings. Thankfully, my assistant Alex is wonderful. He comments that I’m no longer flinching with pain – the pummelling must have worked.

Today also sees the official opening of Winter at Southbank Centre (and yes, I still find that strange in November). We have a forest of beautiful trees donated by Norway to mark next year’s Nordic Matters – a year-long celebration of the culture and philosophy of the Nordic nations – and The Hemingways have worked on the site design with some of our teams. I’ll be in Denmark next week to continue researching ideas for this project.


I head to the coast with my kids and my 92-year-old father for some rest and relaxation.


My sisters’ families join us for a lovely Sunday lunch. I have trips to Nepal, Sri Lanka and India to make before Christmas as WOW continues to build around the globe, so it’s good to get a break. I reflect that I’m grateful to have a job that I love and to witness the positive effect that culture can bring in a world where so many vulnerable people feel marginalised or forgotten.


Jude Kelly is artistic director at London’s Southbank Centre. WOW – Women of the World festival (7-12 March 2017) celebrates women and girls and looks at the obstacles that stop them from achieving their potential.