Female Leaders in the Arts

With the recent appointment of Maria Balshaw as the first female Director of Tate, and following on from International Women’s Day, it’s timely that I have been asked to reflect on strong female leaders within the arts but on a more local level.

As a Director at Left Bank Leeds, a multidisciplinary arts space led by women, I have my own experiences but gained wider perspectives from interviewing other successful female leaders in Leeds: Lisa Le Feuvre, Henry Moore Institute; Wendy Cook, Hyde Park Picture House; and Keran Kaur Virdee, South Asian Arts-uk. All have very generously shared insights into their careers, approaches to leadership and thoughts on gender.

What’s your job title and what do you do?

LL: I am the Head of Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Institute. I have the very wonderful job of leading the Institute, as well as being part of the Strategic Management Team of the Henry Moore Foundation, our parent body.

WC: I’m the General Manager at the Hyde Park Picture House. I love that title because it’s so vague and really encompasses my role that ranges from strategic development through to serving popcorn.

KK: I am the CEO and Artistic Director at South Asian Arts-uk. I report to the Board of Trustees and lead on strategy, fundraising, HR and instil a culture that supports the team to deliver our programme. As an Artistic Director I make sure we have a clear focus and an excellent offer that takes into account artists, participants and audiences.

What career path led you to your current role?

LL: A rather meandering one, which I think is always the best route. I studied Psychology and Economics, then Architecture, then Arts Management, and then Visual Culture. I began my work in the arts in an art bookshop. I then ran public programmes, talks and lectures at The Photographers’ Gallery in London and from there I set up a project gallery in Shoreditch. In these early days I was, as I am now, led by curiosity and a hunger to learn.

WC: Whilst studying art at university I knew I wanted to work in the arts but I wasn’t certain where. I worked at Impressions Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute but it was my role at the Picture House that grew after I graduated. Initially I supported management when needed and then a year later I became the Acting General Manager. So, not a completely conventional career path and I consider myself incredibly lucky with the opportunities that have come my way.

KK: In 1998 I moved from London to Leeds as a single mum of two. I secured a part-time administration role with SAA-uk that allowed me to apply my previous experience and from there I progressed. The role I hold brings together my degree in Fashion Design, and the various jobs I have held since 1986. Pattern Cutter, Job Club Leader and Administrator at English National Board for Nursing and Midwifery.


How would you describe your leadership style?

LL: I am very interested in the difference between leadership and management. To lead is to enable one’s team to have autonomy and to shine, which means that any success is a shared celebration.

WC: That’s a tricky one. I became the manager quite young and have only recently started to assess how I see myself and my role as a leader. I aspire to create an environment where people feel supported and appreciated. I’m happy to admit I don’t have all the answers. I believe strongly in leading by example and recognising everyone’s different strengths that contribute to a successful team.

KK: Clear, caring, empowering and nurturing.

Do you feel gender has had an impact on your career or approach?

LL: Even though we are in 2017, women have to work at least twice as hard as men to be heard. The realm of the arts is no exception, much as we might wish it to be so. There have been changes, but we have a very long way to go.

WC: In the past I’ve worried what people thought of me and sometimes that has been to the detriment of getting things done. Sometimes I think that is a gender-based tendency. Film is certainly a field containing a lot of strong male figures and as I get older I take pride in being an increasingly assertive female voice, so I would say my gender plays a role in my determination to do well.

KK: In the past I’ve watched male colleagues really shout about their successes in a way I don’t think women do. I just get on with my job in a much more understated way.

Is Imposter syndrome something you identify with?

LL: I absolutely do not have any imposter feelings, and as a feminist I strongly feel that women must not even venture into that territory. Women have long been made to feel that any success is not deserved. It is essential that women refuse to comply with this fundamentally misogynistic position. Only when this happens will there be change.

WC: I can definitely identify with the idea. When your job isn’t defined by clear qualifications or career path it’s easy to doubt whether you have what it takes to be in that role. I’ve recently become aware that in order to work on my weaknesses I also need to acknowledge my strengths.

KK: I’m not sure I feel like an imposter, it’s more a voice in my head that questions whether I am good enough, at times that voice can be pretty loud but I’ve developed tools to counteract it.


Do you have any advice for aspiring female leaders in the arts?

LL: Be strong, and be persistent. Keep your patience. Choose your battles. Always strive to be better than your male counterparts: you have to be. Give other women the support you have received, and the support that you wished you had received. Work hard to make yourself heard. Lean how to speak in public. And trust your intuition.

WC: It’s a cliché but try not to worry, it’s exhausting and a distraction. Surround yourself with people you think are magnificent. The energy derived from a great conversation full of passion and ideas is wonderful beyond words.

KK: Have integrity in being you. Everything is achievable. Always follow your gut instinct.

Reflecting on my own experiences and those shared above, there are some common themes that run throughout. We are all passionate about leading our teams so that they feel supported, valued and empowered to succeed. We recognise our own strengths and those of the people we lead. We appreciate the role others play in helping us reach our goals and the role we play in supporting those around us. And, like all accomplished leaders regardless of gender, we know that to gain success requires persistence and dedication.

Words and images by Courtney Spencer, Director of Left Bank Leeds.

Part of the East Street Arts Guest Writer Project #ESAGWP

Left Bank Leeds is a multidisciplinary arts venue set in an amazing Grade II* listed former church building. Our mission is to preserve our amazing venue in order to inspire and empower our community via a sustainable programme of arts and events that promotes creativity, connection and wellbeing.