Jude Kelly CBE is to leave Southbank Centre, London, in order to lead the global development of the Women of the World (WOW) festival, which she founded in 2010. The acclaimed venue manager will relinquish her role after 12 years at the artistic helm of the UK’s largest arts centre. She is expected to leave Southbank Centre in May following the reopening of the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room.
As a panel member at the ISPA Congress in New York last week, Kelly spoke passionately to delegates from the global performing arts world about the importance of WOW to the arts community, citing gender equity, power and taking risks as imperative to improving the lives of women through the arts.
Speaking at The Times Centre, New York, Kelly said: “Activists changed the nature of who got the voice, who got education, and who got the vote. All my life as an artist I have wanted to stay in that same zone and be true, I suppose, to the journey that got me to where I am … the world needs unity and also voices of honesty. Art must be that thing. If it is not, then it is definitely part of the problem.”
Speaking about her dedication to WOW, Kelly added: “To come out as a woman, to actually say [that] for me the most significant factor of imbalance in our world is gender inequality, was a position I hadn’t previously taken.
“Ten years ago, I couldn’t ignore that fact any longer. I started WOW as a festival at Southbank Centre – and then other women [from around the world] came to me and said, ‘Can we do a WOW?‘.”
Kelly cites WOW, which in under a decade has become a global movement, as one of her biggest achievements. There are now 42 WOWs in 23 countries across six continents, celebrating the history and potential of girls and women in all fields of life – sometimes in countries where women are at grave risk for even taking part. Rather than programming the festivals outside London, Kelly works in partnership with leaders to make it happen.
Explained Kelly: “In Somaliland I was in danger, and they were in danger, and the question has to be asked [of the organisers], ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’. The arts leaders themselves, they are looking to have the step that makes it known they are being real to the thing they are saying. In those contexts, I try to support the women. Activism is a lonely area to be in.”
In a statement released by Southbank Centre on Thursday 18 January, Kelly spoke of her decision to leave her role: “It is difficult to imagine a more stimulating and enjoyable time than the 12 years I’ve spent at Southbank Centre – and I shall miss it terribly. With the centre in excellent hands, now is the perfect time for me to move on. In seven years WOW – Women of the World has grown from a single Southbank Centre festival to a significant presence on six continents and is now both intensely challenging and rewarding, with a terrific future ahead. As well as turning WOW into a global movement I shall be developing new artistic projects that arise from the core WOW idea. It is a very exciting time!”
Susan Gilchrist, chair of Southbank Centre’s Board of Governors, added: “Under Jude’s artistic leadership, Southbank Centre has flourished as an open and welcoming centre of arts and culture for everyone. I and the board would like to thank Jude for her hard work, dedication and energy and wish her every success in the future. We are delighted that with the ongoing presentation of WOW at Southbank Centre, we retain a close link with Jude and her work in developing this important festival.”
Kelly’s successor will be announced in due course. In the meantime Southbank Centre’s artistic programme will continue to be developed by the senior team including chief executive Elaine Bedell, director of Music Gillian Moore, and director of the Hayward Gallery Ralph Rugoff.
The WOW festival in London will continue to be presented in partnership with Southbank Centre.