Jude Kelly, one of the UK’s longest-serving and highest-profile arts leaders, is stepping down from the Southbank Centre after 12 years.
Kelly said she wanted to concentrate on the WOW – Women of the World festival she founded eight years ago, seeing its future as “a global movement”.
She has been artistic director of the UK’s largest arts centre since 2006. “It is difficult to imagine a more stimulating and enjoyable time than the 12 years I’ve spent at Southbank Centre,” she said. “I shall miss it terribly. With the centre in excellent hands, now is the perfect time for me to move on.”
Kelly is a much-admired arts leader, known for her bold, ambitious, big-picture thinking. When she joined, the centre felt like a wonderful collection of individual venues – the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room – but with little overall identity.
Since then she has staged high-profile annual themed festivals across the complex, including Art of Africa, The Rest Is Noise, Being a Man and the recent Nordic Matters festival. She began the Women of the World festival in 2010 and since then there have been more than 40 WOWs in 23 countries across six continents.
Sometimes her ambitions were too bold. She was a driving force behind a £100m transformation plan, which included a spectacular glass pavilion on top of the centre for orchestra rehearsals. It foundered after a backlash from neighbours and from skateboarders, who have long used the riverside as a skate park and who would have been forced to move up river.
Instead the Hayward, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room were closed for refurbishment, and the reopening of those venues this year have helped give 63-year-old Kelly a neat date for departure.
Sir Nicholas Serota, the chair of Arts Council England, was among those paying tribute. He said Kelly had transformed “the way in which the centre has welcomed, inspired, educated and entertained” audiences.
“Jude’s direction has made Southbank Centre the natural home for some of the world’s most celebrated artists and organisations, whilst bringing more visitors than ever through the doors,” Serota said.
The centre’s chief executive, Elaine Bedell, who joined from ITV last year, said Kelly was leaving a strong legacy and thanked her for her “artistic drive and passion … Under her creative leadership we now attract some of the most diverse audiences and staff of any UK arts venue and we will continue to ensure that Southbank Centre remains open and accessible to all.”
Kelly, a proud Liverpudlian, was previously artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre and the founding director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
The Southbank Centre said plans for Kelly’s succession would be announced in due course.